OPINION: Many in France need to stop shouting and acknowledge the government’s successes in fighting coronavirus

Columnist John Lichfield considers why it is that the lifting of the lockdown has got everyone in France shouting at each other.

OPINION: Many in France need to stop shouting and acknowledge the government's successes in fighting coronavirus
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's lockdown plan was - symbolically - rejected by the Senate. Photo: AFP

There is a useful French word which often appears in Asterix comics – la zizanie, meaning a general disagreement or bust-up, a quarrel when everyone shouts at everyone else.

It is not surprising the French have invented such a word. Teamwork does not come naturally in France. Nor national unity.

France went into Covid-19 lockdown calmly enough. It is the gradual return to normal life proposed by the government from May 11th which has “semé la zizanie” – or caused everyone to shout at the same time, putting understandable fears or narrow political calculations before the common interest at a time of crisis.

The Macron-Philippe government is partly to blame. Its public communications, reasonably assured at the beginning of the epidemic, have begun to break down in recent days.

But there is something deeply unpleasant about the often ignorant back-seat driving and instant epidemiological expertise of the opposition political parties, from the far right to the centre right and left.

There is also something depressing about the obstructive attitude of some (not all) Metro and rail workers and teachers who are threatening to refuse to return to their jobs next week.

Many people have been working throughout the lockdown. Photo: AFP

Where would France have been if doctors, nurses, care-home staff, supermarket shelf-stackers and till-operators, garbage  collectors, truck drivers – and those teachers who  never stopped taking classes – had refused to risk leaving their homes in the last two months?

The upper house of parliament, the Senate, which campaigned against the lock-down on March 17th, voted narrowly on Monday against the progressive loosening of the lock-down from May 11th.

Or rather the great bulk of the largest party in the Senate, the centre right Les Républicains, failed to express a view on the greatest issue facing the nation. They abstained. Quel courage!

It was centre-left and hard-left votes which narrowly defeated the government’s plans for a two-speed end to the lockdown, dividing the country between “green” (weak virus) and “red” (active virus) departements. The practical effect of the vote is zero. The Senate debate was only symbolic. The plans had already passed the lower house, the national assembly.

The symbolic effect was serious. The narrow rejection added to a growing sense of confusion and lack of trust in the French government which is – in my opinion – unjustified and dangerous.

The early rally-round support for Macron and Philippe is over. In an Odoxa poll this week 65 percent doubted whether the government could successfully lead the nation through the Covid-19 crisis.

At the same time, it is evident that lock-down fatigue is growing. Roads and streets are getting busier. People are worried about leaving the sanctuary of their homes. They are also anxious to get on with their lives.

People are keen to resume their lives, with appropriate safety measures in place. Photo: AFP

The French economy has been in an artificial coma for seven weeks. That cannot go on indefinitely without destroying tens of thousands of jobs and crippling the country for many years ahead.

Many children, often the weaker pupils, have not logged in to the on-line schooling which has been, otherwise, a great success.

In his speech to the Senate on Monday, the prime minister Edouard Philippe was honest and precise about these competing risks and dangerous choices. In my opinion, although he is often mocked by French commentators, Philippe has been a model of calm and common-sense during the Covid crisis.

“This is a critical moment,” he said. “We are at a parting of the ways…Confinement was justified in an emergency but its social costs, its human costs, its economic costs, are colossal…”

“Many unknowns persist. We have never hidden them or underestimated them. No other country  in the word, no scientist can predict today what awaits us in the summer, the autumn, the future…”

Compare that with the ra-ra optimism, flag-waving and stunt-pulling of a certain other government in a country just to the west of France whose Covid record is significantly less impressive.

Impressive, the French government’s record? No, not in all respects. They have been culpably slow to grasp the importance of testing. They were less than straightforward about the shortage of masks a few weeks ago – a problem which is now resolved.

Consider also the government’s successes (something that seems beyond French opposition politicians and much of the French media).

Are Edouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron likely to get any credit for successful handling of the crisis? Don't bet on it. Photo: AFP

The virus has been penned largely in the north and east of the country. France has suffered 25,000 deaths and is on course for a final death toll of around 40,000 (which is about many as died in a great flu epidemic in 1969). Without the lockdown, another 60,000 might have died.

The French hospital system trembled but was never overwhelmed. The figures given nightly for Covid deaths are, judging by separate official statistics on “all deaths”, reasonably complete and honest. “Home deaths” are not yet included but they will be next month.

The economic support programme, for businesses and individuals, instantly devised in mid-March is the most generous in the world. Over 11,00,000 people are now receiving at least 80 percent of their net wages from the state.

Left-wing commentators and politicians scarcely praised this response at the time. Some of them now seem to regard it as part of the “social acquis”, which should go on forever.

France’s relatively high death rate compared to Germany – or Portugal or Hungary – is understandably an obsession of the French media and political opposition.

They rarely point out that France is the most visited country in the world, with a large number of winter tourists from China.

They scarcely covered a significant study by the Pasteur Institute published last week which found that France was attacked much earlier than first thought – from mid-January – by an otherwise unknown variant of Covid-19, not exactly the same virus which caused havoc in Wuhan or in Italy.

Yes, the government’s  “deconfinement” plans are complicated and confusing. So is the virus. Lets hope that Phillippe and Macron have judged their policy more or less right as they have since mid-March  – after some initial hesitations, glitches and failures.

If they’ve got it wrong, there will be plenty of people to tell them. If France slowly becomes France once again, without a second wave of infections, they will deserve enormous credit.

Can they expect to receive it? No chance.

Member comments

  1. I find it one of the most annoying/depressing things about France that politicians who genuinely try their best are not given credit for it. The default position is *always* criticise, criticise, criticise. Allied to an enormous sense of self-entitlement. The French should have *our* (UK) government, then they’d really have something to criticise. I was planning to move to France this year and still hope to, but I hope that if it happens I will be doing it without rose-tinted spectacles.

  2. No government is perfect but I have been very impressed overall with how the French government has managed this crisis (especially when compared to ANY English speaking country, New Zealand excepted). We have become, globally, a society where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t – public figures (B-rate celebrities aside) cannot put a foot right, even when they do…such is life. In South Africa people are complaining that the death toll isn’t high enough to justify lockdown…such is the price of a successful strategy and the curse as well…

  3. France has actually done all it can to control the spread of the virus, and has been reasonably successful. Despite sharing long and porous borders with both Italy and Spain, two of the worst affected countries, France has managed the pandemic very well. It sure has brought out the best in Macron.

  4. It is a sad indictment of the general attitude to authority, despite democracy, in France. But it is also one of the reasons we came here! Normally, French journalism is quite respectful, even cowtowing, to whichever govt is in power, but not at the moment. One wonders which other party would have done better. The answer is none, of course. But, as elsewhere, the efficacy of deconfinement will be crucial, and the communication of that, vital. Communication is something Macron (and Philippe) had to learn, as opposed to grandiose diktat. They got it right in the earlier stages, but seem to have lost the knack just lately. But then, they are not the only ones.

  5. France has been a total catastrophe – the most policed lockdown in the world. Not even “totalitarian” China was as draconian. Did they reach over 1 million fines yet?

    Macron loves this “war on corona” just like he loved “war on the Yellow Vests” and he loved the state of emergency. He thinks Covid-19 will make people forget how hugely unpopular he is and why, but he is wrong – another 1-term president now matter how much he fearmongs with Le Pen.

    France’s death rate is among the highest in the world, so how can anyone say the government did really well? Of course, they are counting death from a hangnail as death from corona in France, so who can really say?

  6. I personally thought the President and his Prime Minister have stepped up to the mark. Sure they have made mistakes……but admit that. When Macron addressed the nation, I for one felt a sense of being a part of France and our common goal. He’s acknowledged that things will not go back to how it was, again he knows he has got some priorities wrong, so let’s judge him at the end of his term. Vive la France!

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French government votes to allow return of Covid tests at border

The French parliament has passed the controversial health bill which updates France's emergency provisions for Covid - and allows the return of negative Covid tests for all travellers at the border, if the health situation requires.

French government votes to allow return of Covid tests at border

The Loi sanitaire was eventually approved by the Assemblée nationale on Monday after several variations and amendments added on its passage through the Assemblée and the Senate. It was voted on and passed Tuesday, May 26th. 

The bill replaces the State of Health Emergency that has been in place since March 2020 and puts in place provision for government actions should the health situation deteriorate or a dangerous new variant of Covid emerge.

The original text had a provision for the return of the health pass at the border, but this has now been scrapped and instead the government has the right to make a negative Covid test a condition of entry for all travellers.

At present negative tests are required only for unvaccinated travellers, and the new test requirement would only be put into force if a dangerous new variant emerges.

The government will be able to implement the testing rule by decree for two months, but a further parliamentary debate would be required to extend it beyond that.

From August 1st the State of Health Emergency will be formally repealed, which means that the government no longer has the power to introduce major limits on personal freedom such as lockdowns or curfews without first having a debate in parliament.

The bill also allows for an extension of data collection required for the SI-DEP epidemic monitoring tools such as the contact tracing app Tous Anti Covid until June 30th, 2023 and Contact Covid until January 31st, 2023. 

The most controversial measure in the bill was the reinstatement of healthcare workers who were suspended for being unvaccinated – this actually only involves a couple of hundred people but medical unions and the medical regulator Haut Autorité de Santé (HAS) have both been against it.

However the bill allows for the eventual lifting of the requirement for Covid vaccination for healthcare workers, when the HAS judges it is no longer necessary and once the requirement is lifted, the suspended healthcare workers will be reinstated “immediately”.

The bill was approved on Monday evening with 184 votes to 149, the result of a joint committee that was able to harmonise the versions of the Assembly and the Senate.

The final vote passed the Senate on Tuesday.