For hundreds of Belgians hoping to spend time with French friends and relatives after almost three months of lockdown, the sunny holiday weekend proved a grim disappointment.
While families with ties in the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg were able to put the coronavirus epidemic out of their minds for a short while, the French border remained shut.
Belgian travellers without written proof that they were on essential business were turned back by French police, despite an announcement from their own government that reunions and shopping trips can resume.
Dès demain il sera à nouveau possible de rendre visite à des membres de la famille dans nos pays voisin. Un nouvel arrête ministeriél relatif au #COVID__19 sera publié demain au Moniteur belge. #begov
— Pieter De Crem (@pieterdecrem) May 29, 2020
Renee-France Ringard had tears in her eyes as she told AFP how she had hoped to cross into France to see her elderly father in the suburbs of Lille for the first time in more than two-and-a-half-months.
“The police officer told us there had been no coordination between the French and the Belgians,” she told AFP at the frontier, before turning back for the 100-kilometre reverse trip to Brussels.
The European Commission has attempted to coordinate the EU response to the global pandemic, but health measures are a matter for member states and the once largely border-free bloc is now a patchwork of regulations.
Capitals are beginning to relax their rules, hoping they can revive the devastated tourism industry in time for the summer season, but the return to work is just as chaotic as was the scramble to lock the continent down.
“Since this morning, more than 100 vehicles have had to turn around,” a French police officer told AFP in the border town of Saint-Aybert. “We’ve received no new orders so we’re running the checks as before.”
Under French lockdown rules, travellers must have a signed statement explaining a pressing need for a journey — such as a essential work mission, a cross-border commute or transporting a child to a parent with joint custody.
But on Friday, Belgium’s Interior Minister Pieter De Crem announced that Belgians could from Saturday once again visit their loved ones, or even just do their shopping, in neighbouring countries.
Luxembourg welcomed this, and travellers crossed into Germany and the Netherlands without much trouble, but no-one seems to have told France.
“We saw the Belgian minister on the television,” said Yvon Mathurin and Paule Wetz, a couple in their fifties, who were looking forward to seeing their daughter and grandchildren in Aniche, 50 kilometres inside France.
“It seems unfair. There’s no coordination in Europe,” Wetz complained. Mathurin, meanwhile, reflected a mood of frustration in a Belgium that has adapted to a continent without borders: “The governments should agree something.”
In a mark of how banal popping into France had become before the epidemic, Andre Dhaeyer just wanted to get some cheese and mineral water.
He was bemused but less upset than those divided from loved ones to be turned back after hearing news of a re-opening on the radio and setting off for France. “Well, I’m not going to die of thirst,” he said.
A Belgian government spokesman admitted there has been some “confusion in the press” and the interior ministry said French residents can visit their families in Belgium, even if the reverse will not be true until at least 15 June.