Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 04, 2020
France must confront the grim realities of its war against COVID 19 It is an open secret that the French are a proud – some might even say arrogant – people, and rationalists to boot; with an explanation ready for any eventuality. The unprecedented coronavirus contagion may just have sounded the death knell for such superciliousness. It might also dramatically change the way we think of politics. The current predicament we’re in is making it amply clear that we have found ourselves in this mess due to an accumulation of wrong decisions taken over the last 15 years, that have now put our lives at risk for the sake of propping up a global liberal order. 

We know better

For a long time, France believed that COVID-19 was limited to China, or at most Asia, as SARS had been. It was considered a by-product of China's untrammelled rush towards modernity the "Chinese way” – i.e without sufficient safety norms – and an outcome of a specific political regime that considers its survival more important than the survival of its citizens. Therefore, the French people didn’t take it too seriously (only concerned with its own diaspora living in Wuhan, numbering about 800) and the government, entangled with other pressing issues, opted for denial – only too happy to treat the disease as a distant issue like it did with SARS, H1N1 and MERS. Until the end of January (and for some, even later), most specialists — including top professors in French hospitals – believed the coronavirus to be a milder threat than SARS and therefore of little consequence. Dr Yazdanpaneh, a leading French expert heading Paris’ Bichat-Claude Bernard hospital’s infectious diseases unit, described the chance of “an epidemic in France or in Europe as weak, extremely weak”. Due to China’s mis-management of the crisis from the very beginning (for reasons yet to be determined), the Chinese New Year became the turning point for the crisis. Permitting  thousands of Chinese, from Hubei and other regions, to fly abroad to celebrate the Lunar New Year transformed a Chinese crisis into a global crisis. Wuhan was locked down only on  23 of January and by that time many who wanted to travel abroad had already left: the first fatality case listed in France was a Chinese citizen who arrived on the 16 January. Given the potential for this virus’ devastating impact on global public health and the global economy, the true factors governing the Chinese government’s information clampdown and agonising slow response will have to be objectively discussed. That was probably the beginning of the worldwide spread. France was recorded the first  country officially hit within Europe, when it confirmed the first three cases on the 24 January: A French citizen of Chinese origin who has just returned from a trip in Wuhan, and a couple of Chinese tourists from Wuhan (one of whom died a week after he arrived to visit France). Should the decision to stop all flights from Hubei and China have been taken by then (and not a week after)? As former Health minister Agnès Buzyn recently suggested, President Macron and his government were aware of the public health risk but the cost was judged too high: With two million visitors to France per year, China makes up 7 % of the overall target market for France’s tourism sector. Interestingly, the first one to publicly ask for a halt to all Chinese flights was Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Rally. Another controversy was with regard to the municipal election schedule. Former Health minister (herself a doctor), declared in a scathing interview with the French Newspaper Le Monde that as early as 11 January , she had informed President Macron of a potential escalation and urged the executive to postpone the elections, evidently without success. Evidence suggests that some people displayed symptoms days after going out to vote. Indeed, the impact of the virus and the level of preparedness was underestimated, probably because the media was giving priority to the ongoing election campaign at that time (and the sex scandal involving a close adviser of President Macron, Benjamin Griveaux). The Élysée’s excuse for this oversight was “ensuring democratic continuity”. Mixed messaging by the designated authorities exacerbated the problem and led to a postponement of the implementation of basic measures to early March. For example,  government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye sought to downplay the crisis – pointing out that more people were infected with flu in a year than were currently infected with coronavirus, before admitting in the same week that the government would likely up the epidemic alert to the maximum level, ban travels and clampdown on public activities. Could this confusion perhaps have been caused by the government’s conflicting imperative to alert citizens while simultaneously also justifying elections? Such mixed messages from the government have contributed to a lack of trust in the system and in the political élite. A recent survey demonstrated that French citizens are the least likely (only 33% positive) to believe in the readiness level of public services. On  12 March, the first set of drastic measures was announced, including the closure of schools. In the meantime, French society was preparing for confinement, storing food and medicines (with incredible fight scenes observed in supermarkets and inflated prices for hand sanitiser gel and stolen masks).

We are at war

It was only after the first round of elections (15 March) that President Macron made his great speech declaring that the French nation is now at war. "The enemy is there, invisible, elusive, and it is advancing”, declared Macron, but did the enemy pause to let French citizens go to vote? We may be “at war” against the virus, but we’re also at war against our State (which reduced funds to run public health services- the available number of beds has been reduced by 1,00, 000 over the last 20 years), against our corporatist system (which doesn’t admit competition between laboratories – the debate over Dr Raoult’s use of hydroxychloroquine is nonsense viewed from the outside), and even against ourselves (our lack of basic discipline – people enjoying the sun in public parks – could have devastating effects). The French are looking to the central government to deal with the crisis, as they are wont to do. The war machine – the French way – could be implemented to slow the exponential spread of the virus, employing measures like high state spending for the provision of social welfare and protection for workers (including paying for taxis and hotels to place health-care workers closer to hospitals). 1,00,000 officers have been deployed to enforce the lockdown. “No Frenchwoman or Frenchman will be left without resources”, promised Macron, stating that tax-breaks and unemployment pay to workers unable to go to work would be provided and salaried jobs would be protected. French people applauded (Macron has an approval rating of 51% now), but doubts are already on the table: Will the social-democratic model promoted by France be resilient enough to overcome this crisis?
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Sophie Boisseau du Rocher

Sophie Boisseau du Rocher

After having completed her Doctorate thesis (1996) at the Institute of Political Science (Paris France)) Dr. Sophie Boisseau du Rocher has been pursuing her research ...

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