Macron’s corruption-steeped failure to protect citizens while exhorting them back to work lies at the root of nationwide scepticism and profound anxiety, argues Susan Ram
As I write, France is already several hours into ‘déconfinement’: the lifting of the lockdown that has been in place here since March 17. For the Macron government, severely restricting citizens’ right to leave home, on pain of punishments ranging from hefty fines to prison terms, has been the central plank of its response to the coronavirus crisis. It might be supposed, then, that the lifting of many of the restrictions in place for eight long weeks would be a matter of public celebration, or at least relief.
In reality, the mood across the nation is distinctly bleak. Whether captured by national polls, expressed through vox pop efforts by newspapers and TV channels, or evident in social media postings, popular sentiment across France appears ill at ease, fearful, and deeply distrustful of government.
Part of the explanation for this lies with the context in which lockdown was imposed; one of comprehensive governmental failure to prepare for, and rise to, the challenge of protecting its more than 60 million citizens. In common with other neo-liberal governments seeking to shift the burden of dealing with an unprecedented and deadly health crisis on to ordinary working people, the Macron regime has proved disastrous in the face of adversity.
Mask-gate: epic-scale incompetence, with the stench of corruption
Perhaps the most spectacular own-goal scored by Macron and team relates to the supply of masks, whether for medical staff, other frontline workers or the public at large. Exemplary investigative journalism by the independent online journal Mediapart has lifted the lid on an immense, corruption-inflected scandal whose repercussions are ongoing.
On the basis of numerous witness statements and confidential documents, Mediapart journalists have established that
- Despite being aware that France was entering the crisis with very low stocks of masks, the health ministry in January and February ordered only minimal quantities – which then took weeks to arrive.
- Things only got worse in March, following the creation of an inter-ministerial unit dedicated to buying masks. Once again, laughingly few masks were procured, and the unit missed several opportunities to secure rapid deliveries.
- The government then hid this shortage for nearly two months while tailoring its health advice on wearing masks according to the level of stocks. While at the end of February France’s top health official recommended that anyone in contact with a person with the virus should wear a mask, a month later a government spokesperson described mask-wearing as pointless.
- Intriguingly, masks continued to find their way to companies in “non-essential” sectors of the economy. While Airbus continued to supply workers with masks (raising concerns about favourable treatment), nursing staff were forced to continue working without protective masks of adequate calibre.
- In the run-up to the lifting of lockdown, the government switched to a completely new strategy, resulting in more chaos – and preferential treatment for supermarket chains in the distribution and sale of masks (free masks are nowhere to be seen).
Reopening schools: prioritising the economy over people’s safety
Awareness of the government’s procurement failures – and its readiness to resort to open lies to cover its tracks – is accompanied by the widespread suspicion that lifting the lockdown is primarily designed to benefit employers and the capitalist economy. This perspective underlies the extreme scepticism with which people across France are treating the phased reopening of kindergartens, nurseries and schools, beginning on May 11.
According to the official timetable, it’s the youngest children who have been placed at the head of the return-to-school queue. Across France, kindergartens, nursery classes and primary schools have been set the task of cutting class sizes while enforcing social distancing among and between their tiny charges, many of them too young to cope with masks. Older children are set to return to classrooms further down the line. As if anticipating trouble with this fantasy-land schedule, the government has declared that all will be conducted on a voluntary basis, with parents free to opt out. No prizes for guessing which parents will find themselves unable to indulge in the luxury of “choice.”
While considerable opposition has been building among teachers and parents, efforts to block the return to school are being hampered by the lack of a unified trade union response. Unlike the UK, where the National Education Union (NEU) is proving an effective bulwark and rallying point against a premature return, French teachers are split between different union syndicates, including some primed for deal-making and compromise. Despite this, important challenges have already surfaced at the regional or departmental level: in Hérault (SW France), for instance, more than 300 teachers have come together to push two demands (supplying teachers with medical-level FFP2 masks, along with systematic Covid-19 testing) as preconditions for any return to work.
At the national level, the CGT (the most combative of France’s big union syndicates) has called for school reopening to be put back to September at the earliest. It has also filed a fresh strike notice, valid until May 30, allowing employees to claim their right to refuse to work if they feel conditions are unsafe, particularly in the face of intimidation.
There are also major concerns about using, and working in, public transport, the more so in huge conurbations such as Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse. Under the rules of ‘déconfinement’, all those using buses, trams, the metro and other forms of mass transit must wear masks, on pain of fines which can rise from a starting point of 135 euros to stratospheric levels. All this just for the privilege of being compelled to ride in what many see as giant incubators of the corona virus.
Fears of a ‘second wave’
A further factor contributing to France’s guarded response to the lifting of lockdown is awareness that the virus remains a deadly presence across a significant portion of the land (the north-eastern ‘red zone’ quadrant, which includes Paris) – and is ripe for a come-back elsewhere. Two recent studies, one by the University of Sorbonne and the other by Public Health Expertise, a Paris-based modelling consultancy, have reinforced concerns by arguing for the inevitability of a ‘second wave’ without continued social distancing, testing on a massive scale, isolation of those carrying the disease and intensive contact-tracing. Despite government blandishments and grandiose claims, nothing on the scale demanded by the situation seems remotely in prospect.
Small wonder, then, to find Macron’s popularity ratings in free fall. A recent poll, by Ifop-Fiducial for CNews and Sud Radio, found that 80% of respondents (up 6 percentage points from a previous poll) thought the government was hiding information about the scale of the pandemic. As far as preparations for the lifting of lockdown were concerned, 65% said they had no confidence in the government whatsoever.
And Macron himself? A mere 34% of those polled expressed confidence in his leadership, a drop of 5 percentage points.
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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.
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