Didier Lallement, chief of Paris police. Photo: En24 News Didier Lallement, chief of Paris police. Photo: En24 News

In France Macron is rushing through legislation to give enforcement squads enhanced powers to control individual behaviour, reports Susan Ram

As the corona virus continues its inexorable march across the globe, it is highlighting and accentuating the characteristics of every regime and government in its path. As if acting as a socio-political accelerant as well as a near-unprecedented medical challenge, the pandemic is lifting the lid on the realities of state power while offering new opportunities for anti-democratic interventions. Along with the devastated human bodies accumulating in mortuaries in a lengthening list of countries, Covid-19 is exacting – or rather is being instrumentalised to exact — another kind of toll: that of civil liberties and hard-won political, employment and social rights.

In France, the virus is flourishing in a context already replete with opportunities for the ‘smack’ of firm government. State power in France, as codified in the constitutional framework of the Fifth Republic, in place since 1958, rests on a number of pillars, among them growing centralisation of power; a hyper-muscled executive with an arsenal of emergency powers; a comparatively flaccid legislature whose deliberations can be swept aside by the flash of an ordinance; and a militarised system of state security, equipped with, and ready to deploy, a range of weapons and strategies, many of them ‘extreme’ by the standards of other western countries. 

The past 60 years have seen the entrenchment and expansion of these core features of the French state. That this process has continued under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron (in power since 2017) is evidenced by the draconian state response to the Yellow Vest movement, with its hideous toll of demonstrators blinded, maimed and beaten up; by the application of similar repressive measures to workers and trade unionists protesting Macron’s pension ‘reforms’; by police brutalisation of vulnerable sections, from high school students to Muslim women; and by routine racist and Islamophobic security operations in poor, ethnically diverse banlieues and neighbourhoods.

In short, civil liberties in France were already under sustained pressure from the state prior to the arrival of Covid-19.

In this context, it would have been profoundly out of character for the French state, and for its current head – a dirigiste former banker with profoundly anti-democratic instincts – to respond to an epic health crisis without losing the chance to bear down further on civil liberties and the rights of working people.

Lockdown, Macron-style: draconian restrictions

In two televised speeches to the nation, on March 16 and 20, Macron announced the central plank of his government’s response to the coronavirus challenge: severe restrictions on citizens’ freedom to leave home and access public spaces. This was no feeble, Johnson-style plea to play the game. “We are at war”, intoned Macron, drawing on his extensive (if unpersuasive) repertoire of martial imagery and theatrical gravitas. Accordingly, no one in France would be permitted to step outside their door without the necessary paperwork: an ‘attestation’, accessible online for printing out, on which individuals would need to fill in their name, date and place of birth, address, and reason for being outside (denoted by a tick in one of seven boxes relating to ‘authorised’ reasons). Even the exact time of leaving home has to be entered above the applicant’s signature.

To guard against non-compliance, penalties were announced. Individuals found in contravention of the lockdown, or whose paperwork was judged faulty or incomplete, would be subject to fines, rising from 135 Euros to four-figure sums. For anyone committing a third such infringement within any 30-day period, the prescribed punishment would be a 6-month jail term, on top of a 3,700-Euro fine.

Given the gravity of the crisis, most people in France would probably be minded to comply with such restrictions, which appear to prioritise their own safety by slowing the advance of the virus. Against this, however, is the growing awareness that ‘mandatory confinement’ is being imposed in a context of government failure and wilful lack of preparation. Inconvenient facts cannot be airbrushed out of the picture: the nationwide non-availability of masks, for example, or the shocking lack of personal protective equipment for frontline workers, or the parlous, teetering-on-the-edge position of hospitals across the country, victims of the neo-liberal slashing of  health budgets under successive French governments.

While sections of the mainstream French media, including major newspapers, are doing something to highlight the shortcomings of the official response, activist forums on social media, many of them linked to the Yellow Vest movement and the radical left, are more effectively unmasking the class character of state strategy.

Offloading responsibility from the state to the individual

A key element of Macron’s approach to the coronavirus crisis is its attempt to offload responsibilities – which should fall to any government worth its salt – onto the backs of individual citizens. As critics are pointing out, this strategy is enabling the government to portray infringements of the mandatory confinement law as the direct cause of mass deaths.

A particularly egregious example of this came on April 3, during an on-air TV interview with Didier Lallement, the chief of the Paris police. When asked for his views on the sharply rising Covid-19 death toll in France, Lallement unhesitatingly opined that the thousands currently battling for life in intensive care units across the land were the very people “who at the beginning of confinement did not respect it.” The correlation was “very simple”, he added. (He was forced to make an abject apology later the same day.)

Uneven, at times brutal enforcement practices

On top of this comes the accumulating evidence of how mandatory confinement is actually being enforced. Never famed for their sensitivity to citizen’s rights at the calmest of times, France’s vast body of security operatives – police, gendarmes, CRS riot squaddies, and members of an ever-growing legion of specialised units – are primed and ready to punish ‘transgressors’. This is particularly the case where targets happen to be Muslim and/or black. Through the prompt action of vigilant neighbours, a body of video evidence is already available online. Examples include brutal attacks on young Muslim men carried out by the BAC (Brigade anti-criminalité), a formation notorious for its thuggery, particularly its vicious assaults on the Yellow Vests, often with life-changing consequences.

The readiness of the security state to bear down on poorer neighbourhoods while leaving leafy suburbs unpatrolled is also being highlighted.

In addition, there’s the broader question of who exactly falls within the remit of mandatory confinement. Against the tide of official exhortations to ‘stay at home’ (for example, citizens are ordered to limit exercise outside the home to one hour a day, within a one-kilometre radius of their home), millions of French workers in non-essential sectors (construction, aeronautics, vehicle manufacture) are being ordered back to work. This is being facilitated by a raft of new emergency powers, whisked through parliament and formally promulgated on March 30.

Sweeping new powers – and fresh concessions to employers

The terms of this new legislation enable the French state to further tighten its grip on citizens’ rights and liberties. The Act legalises extended periods of detention without charge, house arrest and electronic surveillance – all of which can now be implemented without the say-so of a magistrate.

In addition, it arms employers with fresh powers: for example, to force workers to work overtime and sets in place a bruising, 60-hour limit to the working week (against the 35-hour week fought for by French workers and in place since 2000). Employers have also been empowered to compel employees to take their annual holiday leave during the lockdown period (in effect slashing their annual quota, since travel and leisure are explicitly proscribed under lockdown).

Another ominous feature of the new legislation is its definition of what constitutes “essential” work: businesses and sectors deemed “necessary to national security or to the continuity of economic and social life”. Macron’s vast parliamentary majority enabled this catch-all description, together with the bill’s bundle of employer-friendly measures, to enter the statute book without any time limit being set, raising fears they could enter law in a more permanent way.

With most aspects of daily life, including protest on the streets, under open-ended suspension, it is difficult to gauge how people across France are reacting to Macron’s naked bid to turn the current crisis to political and economic advantage. Recent national polls point to a general sense of wariness, an undertow of fear and apprehension not entirely confined to the progress of the coronavirus. But with new forms of online political contact springing up daily, and evidence of growing trade union mobilisation against state-mandated returns to work, French workers, activists  and civil society more generally can be relied on to come up with creative ways of fighting back.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.