PARIS • First, bookstores across literature-obsessed France were ordered to close in a new lockdown to curb an alarming rise in coronavirus cases. A few days later, the government also banned supermarkets from selling books in a bid to parry claims of unfair competition.
Bookworms were left befuddled as store owners, authors and local politicians fumed.
"The decision to close bookshelves in supermarkets is stupid. It robs people in lockdown of culture," said Ms Sylvie Lagrange, an avid reader who visited her library in Paris to "stock up" before the start of a month of lockdown due to last until end-November.
She was not alone. People flocked to public libraries before they too were closed - some 8,000 books were taken out in a just a few hours at the library in Villeneuve d'Ascq, outside Lille along the border with Belgium.
Studies show that France has some of the highest book readership figures in the world and one of the densest networks of bookstores. The SLF union of French bookstores says the country has some 3,300 outlets - one for every 20,300 people.
Unlike many of its neighbours that have issued stay-at-home orders, France decreed bookshops among "non-essential" businesses under the latest lockdown rules. Also closed are hairdressers and barbers, toy stores, florists, cinemas and malls - while clothing stores, speciality food retailers, electronics specialists and others were allowed to remain open.
But it was access to books that mobilised protests in a country with some 16,000 public libraries as well as numerous prizes for authors and television programmes dedicated to literary musings.
"Politicians boast a great deal about the idea that France is a nation of readers and bookstores. But just like that, we realise this was all hot air," said acclaimed author Sylvain Tesson.
Since the lockdown started on Oct 30, anger has grown, with a petition to President Emmanuel Macron, mutterings about flouting the ban and calls to boycott Amazon, which threatens to reap the lion's share of book purchases. The announcement of literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt, was postponed by organisers until bookstores reopen.
Under pressure, the government relented, but not in the way expected. Just days after the initial announcement, Prime Minister Jean Castex said that instead of allowing bookstores to reopen, the government would ban supermarkets from selling books too.
Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said postage would be reduced for bookshops to mail orders to readers in a bid to prevent large e-commerce companies taking over the field. But the measures did little to appease bookstore owners, whose turnover fell by some 95 per cent in France's first lockdown, from March to May this year.
The SLF urged President Macron to remember "that the book is a product unlike any other: it is a good that must be protected by the nation, under all circumstances".
"Bookstores play a unique role in... transmitting culture and knowledge," it said in a statement. "They are also one of the most effective ramparts against ignorance and intolerance."