PARIS — The sales agreement was signed, and the plans — from the location of the hearth in the living room right down to the color of the tiles that would lead to the massive entrance — were nearly complete. "The house was going to look like something out of a design magazine," says 50-year-old Philippe, the manager of an automobile company in Toulouse.

The staggering price of the building — 1.2 million euros — wasn't really an issue. Philippe and his wife, a commercial director in the ready-to-wear industry who is "always between two planes," were used to the ins and outs of the real estate market. They deal regularly with capital gains. "Two months ago, we were sure it all made sense," says Isabelle.

Nicolas, 43, a multinational sales person with more than two decades of experience, also had a habit of performing, day in and day out, at a high level. His focus was to "sell more, produce more, get the maximum bonus," and until recently, there was no reason to think he wouldn't keep doing that.

Valérie, an executive in training, operated at her own grueling pace — and with no end in the sight. She woke up every day at 6:30 a.m., ran to catch a commuter train at 7:45 a.m., and returned home exhausted at 7 p.m., barely able to enjoy time with her husband and 14-year-old daughter.

But then, starting on March 17 — when France found itself in a nation-wide lockdown — everything ground to a halt. Valérie, for one, had trouble sleeping the first few nights. It was too quiet, she recalls. The commuter trains no longer rumbled by. She couldn't hear cars merging onto the RN3.

By being "withdrawn" from the world, people suddenly had the space to question their place in it.

Soon, however, the 40-something discovered the pleasure of breakfast without looking at her watch, exercising regularly and, for the first time seeing "the arrival of spring on the hills" overlooking her building in Seine-Saint-Denis. "It took the forced confinement for us to realize how trapped we were in our daily suburban subway-work-sleep routine," she says. "It's like we were already confined."

For Valérie, Nicolas and so many other French people caught up in their high-pressure, daily routines, the "pause" imposed by confinement acted as a powerful revealer. Nicolas says that by being "withdrawn" from the world, people suddenly had the space to question their place in it.

"Confinement is a breaking point. Things become more glaring. It's a test of truth. We can no longer lie to ourselves," says the philosopher Claire Marin, author of Rupture(s). "This situation can reveal the superficial or vain side of what we lived before. We discover our addictions and our helplessness. That's what makes you want to change your life."

For Laura, a young worker who has just finished her lengthy studies, confinement and working from home have made her question "the amount of work" she does and "the repetition of tasks." It all seems absurd now, she acknowledges. Laura realizes that she should have addressed these issues during her studies, and now dreams of "dropping everything for a more simple life."

Views of the Eiffel Tower are still visible outside the city limits. — Photo: Isaiah Bekkers/Unsplash

Phillippe and Isabelle had their moment of realization when their bank informed them that the terms of repayment on their loan would pass from 25 to 20 years due to the economic crisis. "We felt deep inside that we were doing something stupid. Did we want to continue this frantic and chimerical quest for bigger and more beautiful? Or was it time to listen to our gut for once?"

At the end of June, the family will move into a rental apartment, half the size of the house they were about to buy, but without going into deep debt with the bank. Their goal now? "A future without credit."

The vulnerability of the capitalist system in which Nicolas operated for so many years is just now bubbling to the surface. "With confinement, I had time to reflect, time that I'd normally have devoted to commercial purposes," he says.

Partial unemployment is giving him the opportunity to read further on collapsology. And it's all leading to a big decision: Nicolas has had enough of "force-feeding shareholders" and now plans to trade his corporate job selling jet skis for one with a smaller company, with more virtuous objectives. "Why not sell bicycles?" he says.

Confinement is a breaking point. Things become more glaring. It's a test of truth.

For Valérie and her husband — a commuter couple that has only ever known apartment life — the weeks of peace and quiet rekindled a long buried dream: to move to the coast. They want a home in Normandy, with a view of the ocean. "We have the impression of advancing — finally," she says.

"We're giving ourselves two years to make our transition, keeping a cool head and putting emphasis on finding work," Valérie adds.

Claire Marin calls this impulse to imagine another life — at a time when our real existence is so constrained — a "psychic need." It's understandable, in other words, but also a bit deceptive, she warns. "Confinement can be a distorting mirror. It distorts our representations."

Conversely, some projects that were already started have been halted abruptly because of the pandemic. Aline and her husband were due to drive around the world with their two daughters but decided, at the last minute, to call off the trip. "We didn't want to be stranded 5,000 kilometers from family." Not only that, but they decided to move in the complete opposite direction: Rather than be nomads, the couple from Ornais is looking looking to "root" themselves by purchasing a home in the countryside.

"The changes brought about by confinement will not necessarily be radical," says Rémy Oudghiri, sociologist and author. For many people, they'll be "simple readjustments," he adds.

For Philippe and Isabelle, readjusting means not only backing out of their million-euro house project, but honoring the "debt" they feel toward their nine-year-old daughter. "We realized that we didn't know her so well," her father admits. Isabelle agrees. "Half the time I'm away," she says. Now, both parents are determined to watch her grow.


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