Can Europe Make It?

France’s 1984

General Lizurey’s report is still not available publicly on his own ministry’s website, that of the Ministry of the Interior.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
10 November 2020, 4.18pm
Emmanuel Macron and General Richard Lizurey marking the World War II victory in Europe, May 2019.
Witt Jacques/PA. All rights reserved.

If your partner has their clothes loaned by France’s richest entrepreneur why would you even notice the torn jacket of the young woman sitting in the rue Rambuteau with her hand-written scrap of cardboard? All she wants is enough for the next meal. You have much greater affairs of state to think about.

Bernard Arnaud, whose company is couturier at large to Brigitte Macron, could offer cash for a meal to every street dweller in France every day of the year and still have more than enough to rush a birthday cake from the Pain de Sucre pâtisserie a few paces nearer the Elysée Palace than her spot. One large enough for six will put you back £50 before you can say Contactless.

Those unregistered workers who courier such luxuries here and there in central Paris would have taken less than five minutes to bike it to the Presidential dining table. In all likelihood, dear friend Bernard could even rush one of those cakes to every homeless person in the country every day for every year he continues in business, and still have enough small change in his pocket to snaffle up another Tiffany’s or two.

Don’t for one moment forget, and don’t for one moment stop saying to everyone you can, that as this virus takes its progress through the poor, the outcast and the marginalised of this world, the rich elite are creaming into their coffers, wallets and tax havens more and more of the world’s money, aided and abetted by governments around the globe.

Bernard is only one among them. Emmanuel is only one among the leaders whose instinctive reaction ever since SARS-Cov-2 sneaked over the horizon, has been to tell those already bulldozing public funds in the way of the Bernards of this world, to up their pace, abandon all restraint and, in Emmanuel’s own words “do whatever it takes”.

No action programme exists

Do what? Unfortunately that phrase was not uttered in the context of the announcement of an action programme to mobilise France’s huge resources in science, technology and production, along with its human resources, both those that are highly trained, indeed among the most productive in the world, and those that are industrious, willing and eager, those who have kept the country and its economy moving since the start of the epidemic. No such action programme exists.

Which is why France, like other European countries, is now facing not a “second wave” – this virus never went on a summer holiday like some other coronavirus – it was simply left with a bit less wind behind it under the impact of the spring lockdown. Since then, infection has systematically exploited the weaknesses of the actions taken by the government with slow arithmetic progression until this autumn, when its presence everywhere geared the epidemic up for the current geometric explosion in case numbers.

No, the “do whatever it takes” refers to the amount of taxpayers’ money Macron is prepared to put at the disposal of the country’s major private enterprises.

No, the “do whatever it takes” refers to the amount of taxpayers’ money Macron is prepared to put at the disposal of the country’s major private enterprises.

It is around this that he has not been able to hold together the alliance that brought him to power in 2017, an alliance that included many former activists of the left, particularly the Socialist Party and the Greens. His political formation, La République en marche! lost its majority in the National Assembly long ago. One deputy who left was a top career civil servant on the financial side of things, Emilie Cariou. They met when he was an adviser in President Hollande’s Elysée team.

She’s now doing the rounds of the media interviews slamming Macron’s 100 billion Euro economic recovery plan. It benefits most the brace of big companies that dominate the heights of the French economy: not the tens of thousands of small businesses now in danger thanks to a second lockdown. With one million more now in poverty it does not help hard-pressed families. Rather than raising the revenues of the vulnerable, extra money that would be spent in France, “the government is going to hose public cash over entire sectors that do not need it, finance for instance”.

This is why the brash promises of an all-competent start-up nation marching to a sunny horizon of careers for all, has become a grim dance of the incompetent and the complacent with SARS-Cov-2.

Appeals to national unity

When the Presidential toolbox is revealed to be empty, appeals to national unity and firmness of purpose take over. Happily, he had the 50th anniversary of the death of General de Gaulle to play with. So on 9 November he tweeted: “resilience and determination. Charles de Gaulle incarnated this spirit. It is a heritage, that of France.” Unhappily, he spoiled the effect by accompanying this with a small video of the general on which he takes up the role of an out of work actor providing an occasional voice-over full of fake solemnity.

It was the same message in his two national broadcasts in October. On the 14th he announced widespread night-time curfews, promising – in the future – an adequate testing system and a new telephone app to help with contact tracing. This latter would come on 22 November, that is eleven months and two weeks after the WHO told governments around the world to make sure that they had proper test, trace and isolate systems in place. In contrast to this sloth, he told us what we already knew only too well: that the virus was “re-circulating very fast again”.

On the 28th, a mere fortnight later, the message was full of desperate urgency: “We have all been surprised by the sudden acceleration of the epidemic.” There would have to be a national return to the spring lockdown. But, he quickly added, “whatever happens we must remain united and in solidarity and not give way to the poison of division. This period is difficult in that it tests our resilience and our unity. But it reveals that which we are.”

Which is horribly true, but not in the way he meant it to be taken. The day of his broadcast was when we also learned of an important internal government report on why the epidemic had been so badly handled by ministers in the spring, a report that pilloried the anti-democratic way in which the decision-making process in the French Fifth Republic, the personal creation of Charles de Gaulle, skewed things towards the incompetent and incoherent when it came to dealing with the virus.

The weekly Canard Enchainé and the investigative on-line publication Mediapart, two of the finest delights in French journalism, sprang on us all the hitherto secret report by General Richard Lizurey, formerly of the gendarmerie. He painted a picture of a highly centralised decision-taking process but in which “information was privileged over strategic decision taking”.

One had wondered why the Macronie was so successfully leaving the French media and public obsessed with the latest figures of the spread of the virus rather than with discussion of how actions were being taken to develop the material basis and the popular networks of activity to deal with it. Lizurey makes clear that this success is based on a simple fact: the President is obsessed in the same way himself and the last thing he wants is for the public to be engaged as an actor in this drama.

Jean Castex, his prime minister, put it well when appearing before the National Assembly in mid September: “There is a simple coherence to the government’s policy: it’s called living with the virus.” Yet, at the same time, he had been reading the detailed reports from the Scientific Council Macron appointed back in March that, over the summer, warned ever more shrilly that catastrophe was looming.

In private, according to the daily Le Monde, Castex commented at the start of October that when he read one of the council’s reports “I said to myself, at that moment, that if we do not take stronger action, we will be overtaken by the virus because public opinion will not follow us. We needed to do something dramatic.”

Trapped in the Jupiterian heights of a decision-taking process behind closed doors and excluding all popular involvement, that “something” waited almost another four weeks before it emerged. Yet the best weapon against the virus is the involvement of the public, an end to governmental secrecy and a democratic approach to solutions. Instead, under the storm clouds of the autumn, France, La Nation that Macron loves to evoke, drifts toward an Orwellian future that a grafitti artist hints at with their “1984” high on a building at La Place de la Nation that I see each time I take my allowed one hour exercise break during this epidemic.

Place de la Nation 26 September 2020.JPG
Place de la Nation, September 2020. | Author's own image.

Yet the best weapon against the virus is the involvement of the public, an end to governmental secrecy and a democratic approach to solutions.

Elizabeth Borne and transparency

Let’s just take two areas, distance working and the hopes around vaccines, the one provoked by the strikes called across parts of the school system for 10 November in protest over the way the government insists schools carry on welcoming pupils even though safety measures are poor, and the other by the Pfizer announcement of their possible success.

Minister of Work, Elizabeth Borne, has argued that, in this new lockdown, French employers should have everyone working from home who possibly can. She went to the offices of the oil giant Total in Paris’ Defense business district to say that it was an obligation not an option. Total insists that its staff come in at least two days a week.

It is argued that the government does not have the legal powers to impose distance working on employers. The Conseil d’Etat, the highest judicial court, ruled in mid-October that ministers could only recommend not enforce. Instead Borne has said she will use the work inspectorate to push the issue – the work inspectorate whose staff was told by her predecessor Muriel Penicaud during the spring lockdown not to insist that employers delivered effective workplace safety for those who still had to work.

All the trade unions have criticised the way employers have held back from switching to distance working. The largest, the CFDT was the one that raised the issue of Total. More militant, the CGT, has condemned the feebleness of the minister’s pressure via the work inspectorate. Neither federation has been mobilised by the government to help in this drive. That would be to break Macron’s golden rule that things must be top down and not bottom up.

And on the day that the world heard the news from Pfizer, two other items of news dropped in France. The National Agency for Medical Safety announced that it had been charged with manslaughter by judicial investigators following up the Dépakine scandal, a drug that led to over 30,000 handicapped babies. The French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi had already been charged in August. Both the authority and Sanofi knew the drug had dangers. Sanofi is one of the world companies racing to develop a SARS-Cov-2 vaccine, a favourite of the Elysée whose occupant has been following Sanofi’s shocking lead on Dépakine when it comes to Covid-19.

It so happened that, at the same time, another key state agency on medicines, the High Authority for Health, opened up a public consultation on how a possible vaccine might be used, who should get it first and whether it should be obligatory or voluntary (France has long made vaccination for the young a legal requirement).

The agency announced that it wanted “to underline the need for transparency toward the public as indispensible in the construction of public confidence in respect of vaccines. In a context where doses will undoubtedly arrive in stages, it is indispensible that the public understands why priorities have to be established and on what criteria.”

Lizurey’s report

That confidence will not be achieved by ignoring the sensible advice of the General – Lizurey , not de Gaulle – but in the video recording for 4 November of the National Assembly commission investigating the management of the epidemic you can see something spectacular. Olivier Veran, the Health Minister, told the deputies that he had not seen Lizurey’s report. He hummed and hah’ed into his mask, shrugged his shoulders and glanced embarrassedly from side to side, but his words were clear: he could not comment on the report because “Ah well, listen, I have not had it . . . It is like that in the functioning of institutions, the press can have a report before the minister concerned.”

With the minister most responsible for action against Covid speaking like that, it was not a surprise to learn that the Paris prosecutor’s office, after spending months in detailed investigation of complaints by doctors and patients over the handling of the epidemic, has now laid against "X" exactly the same charges as those against Sanofi. So anyone responsible for this catastrophe, ministers and their chief, now face formal investigation for "wilful negligence in fighting a danger" , "endangering the lives of others" and "manslaughter".

Lizurey’s report, sent to ministers during the summer, is still not available publicly on his own ministry’s website, that of the Ministry of the Interior. But on that website you will find a tempting little number dangled in front of some of the hard-pressed “front line” workers. You want to try your chance at access to French citizenship? Consult the Indicative list of front line occupations that open a right to recognition on Ministry website pages covering nationality.

There among the rubbish collectors, the funeral staff, post workers, doctors and nurses, supermarket checkout staff, and so many others, there are also livreurs, the couriers who keep those cakes, those pizzas and all of Jeff Bezos’ sales moving. If they put their health on the line throughout this Covid disaster, they might just be allowed to squeeze past the normal bureaucracy that has so far kept their feet on the pedals without a proper pay packet.

They left the workless world of poor Africa, burnt their feet on the sands of the Sahara, survived the slave masters and militias of Libya, filled their lungs in the Mediterranean and now have to let the virus explore their immune systems in order to pick up, finally, the deep maroon, pocket-sized little booklet with Union européenne: République française PASSEPORT stamped in gold.

For Bernard it has been a different kind of passport, one to the ranks of the mega titans of the world of wealth where the gold is not a decorative smidgeon but weighs in by the ingot. Not every one in the CAC-40, the French equivalent of the FTSE100, has done well in this epidemic. Those who are big in the world of exports and those who trade to China head the list of the ones whose profits and wealth have grown. Bernard, in turn, heads that list. His LVMH saw its June to September sales to Asia jump by 13 per cent. The rise in sales to China was described by one commentator as “breathtaking”.

Just a last little point from Macron’s 14 October broadcast, the one that announced a curfew not a lockdown because he wanted an economy that continued to function. He announced a temporary payout for those at the bottom of the scale, not a permanent, general rise in benefits. Why? “Because the more we raise benefits, the more difficult we make it for people to get back to work.” For him, an economy functions when his partner’s couturier is swimming in cash while those who stitch the dresses carry on singing for their suppers.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData