I returned to Paris with my family three months after President Emmanuel Macron had ordered one of the world’s most aggressive national quarantines, and one month after France had begun to ease itself out of it. When we exited the Gare Montparnasse into the late-spring glare, after a season tucked away in a rural village with more cows than people as neighbors, it was jarring to be thrust back into the world as we’d previously known it, to see those café terraces overflowing again with smiling faces.
My first reaction was one of confused frustration as we drove north across the river to our apartment. The city had been culled of its tourists, though it was bustling with inhabitants basking in their reclaimed freedom. Half at most wore masks; the other half evinced indifference. We were in the midst of a crisis, I complained to my wife. Why were so many people unable to maintain even minimal discipline?
Glued as I am to the news from the U.S.—where I was born and grew up and travel frequently— I couldn’t shake the feeling that France was also opening up recklessly early. But I was wrong to worry. As Donald Trump’s America continues to shatter records for daily infections, France, like most other developed nations and even some undeveloped ones, seems to have beat back the virus.
The numbers are not ambiguous. From a peak of 7,581 new cases across the country on March 31, and with a death toll now just below 30,000—at one point the world’s fourth highest—there were just 526 new cases on June 13, the day we masked ourselves and took the train back to Paris. The caseload continues to be small and manageable.
America, however, is an utter disaster. Texas, Florida, and Arizona are the newest hubs of contagion, having apparently learned nothing from the other countries and states that previously experienced surges in cases. I stared at my phone in disbelief when the musician Rosanne Cash wrote on Twitter that her daughter had been called a “liberal pussy!” in Nashville for wearing a mask to buy groceries.
That insult succinctly conveys the crux of the problem. American leadership has politicized the pandemic instead of trying to fight it. I see no preparedness, no coordinated top-down leadership of the sort we’ve enjoyed in Europe. I see only empty posturing, the sad spectacle of the president refusing to wear a mask, just to own the libs. What an astonishing self-inflicted wound.
On June 26, a day when the U.S. notched some 45,000 new cases—how’s that for “American carnage”?—the European Union announced that it would loosen some travel restrictions but extend its ban on visitors from the United States and other hot-spot nations. On Tuesday, it confirmed that remarkable and deeply humiliating decision, a clear message that in pandemic management, the EU believes that the United States is no better than Russia and Brazil—autocrat-run public-health disasters—and that American tourists would pose a dire threat to the hard-won stability our lockdown has earned us. So much for the myth that the American political system and way of life are a model for the world.
We didn’t stay long in the city. Although the chance of contagion in Paris is minimal, the thought of unnecessary risk unnerved me, and so we left again for another round of self-imposed confinement. But this was a choice. I think of my mother and father trapped in New Jersey, in their 70s and 80s, respectively, and at the mercy of a society that is failing extravagantly to protect them. And it is failing to protect them not from some omnipotent enemy—as we believed in March and perhaps even as late as April—but from a tough and dangerous foe that many other societies have wrestled into submission.
I think of my father, whom I realize I may not see this calendar year or possibly even the next, and I picture him housebound indefinitely, unable to experience a pleasure so anodyne as bookstore browsing. I think of my mother, who is missing her grandchildren’s birthdays and watching them grow tall through FaceTime, and I imagine her leaving the house at dawn to arrive at the grocery store during its early hours for seniors. I am infuriated. I am also reminded once again of the degree to which so many other countries deliver what is, in real terms, a palpably higher quality of life by any number of self-evident measures.
America is my home, and I have not emigrated. I have always found the truest expression of my situation in James Baldwin’s label of “transatlantic commuter.” I have lived in France off and on since the early 2000s, and it has been instructive over the decades to glimpse America’s stature reflected back to me through the eyes of a quasi-foreigner. If the country sparked fear and intense resentment under George W. Bush and mild resentment mixed with vicarious pride under Barack Obama, what it provokes under Trump has been something entirely new: pity and indifference. We are the pariah state now, but do we even see it?