France: the troubling post COVID-19 horizon

The war metaphors have vanished. On Monday 13 April, in his fourth speech to the French since the beginning of the lockdown, President Emmanuel Macron did not prioritise instrumentalizing historical references, and now appeared more modest than in his previous statements on the Coronavirus pandemic.

He acknowledged shortcomings in the management of the crisis by the authorities, who are being blamed for the lack of masks and tests in France, and their erratic communication. The precious masks, which are the subject of strong competition in France and abroad, should be available in a few weeks, he promised. Macron also announced new measures to back partially unemployed workers, companies, self-employed, the worst hit sectors of the economy such as the hotel industry or tourism, the families with children and most in need.

As a whole, France’s economic emergency plan amounts to 110 billion euros. This is the great return of the State to a country that the young liberal president Emmanuel Macron had promised to reform; keenly complying with the 3% deficit EU rule to attract the trust of its German partner. But the Coronavirus crisis has shattered everything. European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen suspended the rules of the eurozone’s Stability Pact. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as early as 11 March, said that she was prepared to abandon Germany’s zero budget deficit rule.

Pundits claim that Macron’s speech on the 13th of April initiated Act II of his mandate, a social turnaround that would allow him to reconnect with the social-democrat basis of his electorate. But this is too simplistic. Fond of historical references, the president chose one in his speech that was full of ambiguity. “To prepare for the aftermath,” he said, “we will also have to remember that our country, today, is all about the women and men that our economies least recognise and pay so poorly. “Social distinctions can only be based on common utility”.

The French wrote these words more than 200 years ago. Today we must take up the torch and give full force to this principle”. The principle mentioned by the President is in Article 1 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. It follows the famous sentence: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. However, the principle of social distinctions as based on common utility is not easy to define. It is rarely used by the constitutional judges to assess French law. By quoting it, the president of course refers to nurses, cashiers, delivery men, workers requisitioned to maintain essential production, those exposed to the risk of contagion when the rest of France lives in lockdown. These are the low-paying professions.

But is Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights the signal of more social justice to come for the French? Vincent Valentin, a professor of the philosophy of law, explained to me that, “This article means that the social hierarchy must be justified from a perspective that benefits everyone,”. He then added, “But this does not exclude a liberal interpretation, namely that social distinctions produced by the market economy are necessary because they reflect global utility”.

In fact, the reality of the market is never far away. A week after this speech, the governor of the Bank of France was already in the news predicting the future French debt, which will reach 115% of the GDP, which is 15 points higher than before the pandemic. “In the long run, we will have to reimburse this money,” said François Villeroy de Galhau. And in order to reduce spending: “we will have to aim for more efficient management, especially as the French do not want to pay more taxes. Germany can respond well to the current shock because it was able to reduce its debt when things were better,” stated the Governor of the Banque de France.

Austerity looms, while the crisis is exacerbating inequalities in France. While 11% of the inhabitants of Paris deserted the capital and relocated to their secondary residences once lockdown was announced, others, living in poorer conditions, found themselves partially unemployed or without jobs, and craftsmen and small entrepreneurs were anxious about weeks of closures ahead. And the Seine Saint-Denis, in the suburbs of Paris, the poorest department in France and also one of the most densely populated, experienced one of the highest mortality rates, having three times fewer intensive care beds than the capital.

Social concern even goes beyond square meters. Demographer Hervé Le Bras has looked at areas in France where people were more, or less, cramped in lockdown. In his research, he notes that the part of France “where accommodation is more spacious, is in the famous “diagonal of the void”, which gave rise to the Yellow Vests movement”.

This diagonal became apparent during last year’s social crisis as an area across France with few inhabitants and abandoned by public services. But the fact that the Yellow Vests might enjoy better housing than those in the Seine Saint-Denis does not mean they are less affected by the pandemic.

The economic crash might sweep them up too. And they remain vocal on social media, susceptible to the abundant fake news surrounding coronavirus. Their anger against Macron, “the president of the rich”, seems unquenchable.

The anxiety of the French has always been the best fuel for extremes. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National, France’s extreme right, has never ceased attacking the government, even when the rest of the opposition remained quiet. And although acts of solidarity between French people have multiplied since the lockdown, denunciations are also spreading.

The French police are overwhelmed by allegations against those not adhering to the rules of the lockdown, as in the darkest hours of history. The lockdown’s phase out, announced by Macron as set for after the 11th of May, has little chance of calming people as, in the absence of vaccines against the Covid-19, new periods of lockdown might be likely in the future.

In addition to the economic shock and the rise of inequalities, Emmanuel Macron will then face the last two years of his mandate with French people psychologically exhausted from weeks and weeks of lockdown.

By Peggy Corlin (Forum’s Regional Editor in Paris)

Picture by Christoph Leung:

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