French President Emmanuel Macron made the return of “la bise” all but official Friday by giving warm cheek-to-cheek embraces to two World War II veterans at an award ceremony.
The French leader wore a face mask. The veterans – Leon Gautier, 98, and Rene Crignola, 99 – did not. But both seemed comfortable, and reciprocated, as Macron reached in and put his cheeks to theirs.
Macron is vaccinated against the coronavirus and also suffered a moderate bout of COVID-19 in December.
The gesture put Macron’s seal of approval on what is still a slow, hesitant and not always welcome return of embraces. They became frowned upon as COVID-19 infections ravaged France, which counts 110,000 dead from the disease.
With 60% of France’s adults now having had at least one jab, embracing family and friends again has been one of the joys of vaccination for those who are quickly falling back into the habit.
But others are clinging to the hope that its disappearance during the height of the pandemic might still become permanent, particularly in workplaces.
Even before the pandemic, “la bise” was a source of division. Having to do rounds of kisses with colleagues was regarded as an awkward and tedious chore by some, a pleasant, relationship-affirming exercise by others.
Macron’s embraces for the veterans as he awarded them the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest award, marked another step toward France feeling like its former self again.
Face masks also came off this week – no longer required attire outdoors in most circumstances. And a nighttime curfew is ending on Sunday.