Can Europe Make It?

France’s Far West: don’t let you take my kindness for weakness

“ The right does not intend that the ‘after Covid’ should correct the mistakes of the ‘before’.”

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
8 April 2020, 6.59am
The Man from Laramie (1955).

Don’t let you take my kindness for weakness: the chorus line in English was being repeated over the Carrefour supermarket muzak channel just as the staff, with minimal personal protection, were handling the vegetables onto the display shelves. It’s from a 1972 song by the Soul Children: manufactured, commercial music from a distant, other era, one before Thatcher, before Reagan, long, long before Emmanuel Macron and his war on Covid-19.

Quite why all large French shops play Anglophone music at their customers must have something to do with the fact that the performance rights are now rock bottom. At least this one had a positive message for a moment of crisis, not the usual jumble of misogyny, violence and pap that floats above the heads of French shoppers as, thankfully, virtually no one can understand any of the lyrics.

Don’t let you take my kindness for weakness. The words kept repeating as I passed a window with a TV screen showing the news of the rush by a team of French journalists to get back to their base in Peking from a reporting trip in South Korea before China closed its borders. They were diverted away from the capital by Chinese border officials and into 14 days quarantine in a hotel room, three meals a day delivered to their doors by hotel staff, all the Chinese involved being filmed wearing more protective gear than all but the best equipped among France’s medical teams fighting the virus.

Instead, those for whom Thatcher, Reagan and Macron are the guiding lights, find themselves scrabbling like blood thirsty ferrets in a sack over masks, gloves, gels, anything that might look like defence against infection.


“The Far West” was how some in France were describing it as Week 3 of Macron’s War came to a close. In a perfect replay of the politics of the free market at its very worst, masks made in China were snaffled between factory and runway: the right wing leaders of the regional councils covering greater Paris and Alsace Lorraine have both accused US customers of buying up consignments they had ordered at “up to 3 or 4 times the price we had agreed”.

The French are no better than the American hustlers in Shanghai – a consignment of four million masks intended for Italy and Spain was reportedly requisitioned when it passed through Lyons on its way from China. Too much even for Macron who ordered that it be allowed on its way.

A consignment of four million masks intended for Italy and Spain was reportedly requisitioned when it passed through Lyons on its way from China.

The image of a France subject to the politics of Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood was perhaps provoked in the minds of some by the sorts of do-it-yourself masks being promoted on semi-official sites. The French media-owned news agency, AFP, tweeted an advice note out to all and sundry that included the image of a face partly obscured by a bandana, like those of the train-robbing brigands of Wild West movies, a particular problem in a country where official politics, cheered on by the far right, has spent the past decade pillorying any Muslim woman who chose to cover her face.

This make-do is everywhere. As the war’s Week 4 was beginning, no supermarket within the radius that the French rules of confinement allow me to walk to from home had the same approach to safety for its staff. Even branches of the same company were operating differently, with a jumble of different face masks, strange varieties of plastic sheeting between shopper and cashier, some shelf-stackers with gloves, others not . . .

At the Marks and Spencer food store the young staff – all, as in Monoprix, Carrefour and Franprix, from the suburbs, from “les quartiers difficiles”, “de la diversité”, “de l’origine de l’immigration” as French still has it – were polite, effective and industrious. But their protection against SARS-Cov2 was something they had bodged together themselves.


If it is not the disorganised make-do, it is catch-up of a kind that takes the breath away. Remember it was 10 January when the WHO called on countries across the world to review what they needed to do in the face of the virus. Yet it was only in the dying days of Week 3 that the authorities got their act together on using veterinary and public health laboratories to help with a projected plan to test much greater numbers of people for the virus and subsequent antibodies. It was only at the start of Week 4 that we got a mobile phone version of the permit to be out and about.

Not a surprise that confidence in the Macron government and its handling of the crisis plunged by a third according to opinion polls – for what they are worth – and was then standing at 40 per cent. Two thirds think the government is lying. And why not believe that when the government had been saying regularly that facemasks were not necessary for the public but, with the start of Week 4, said they were. “The policy on masks has been adjusted according to our resources,” a government adviser explained to the press. Only a fortnight before, the government minister who acts as its official spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye, was boasting: “I do not know how to put on a mask.”

Two thirds think the government is lying. And why not believe that when the government had been saying regularly that facemasks were not necessary for the public but, with the start of Week 4, said they were.

Easy to forget that a small French factory once exported facemasks to customers round the world. It is even claimed that the FFP2, the Filtering Face Piece Type 2, something of a world standard in these things, was developed in the tiny Breton town of Plaintel. The production line that had turned out millions of them was sold to a local scrap merchant at the end of 2018. In the final months of their efforts to keep the place going, the unions had protested all the way up to Macron himself.

Mask production there went back some 40 years. After the avian flu scare of 2009, the government ordered tens of millions of them “in the context of a risk of a pandemic”. The company expanded and the US multinational Honeywell gobbled it up in May 2010. Oops. Paris changed tack, stocks were run down, orders not renewed and workers sacked.

After some years milking the French public purse for subsidies for part-time working, Honeywell kissed goodbye to Brittany: “Production will be transferred to another site (in Tunisia) to rationalise our global operations and better serve our clients.” That last phrase deserves a second read.

Unwelcome inquiry

“It is incomprehensible that the world’s fifth power cannot produce enough masks,” commented Christine Prunaud, the local Communist member of the Senate, the upper house of France’s parliament, as the story of Honeywell’s sting in Plaintel resurfaced.

Do those “close to Macron” who report that he has warned “We will remember those who were not up to it”, share that same, agonised astonishment? Not a bit of it. The phrase was let slip into the public domain as a warning to those of his ministers and followers who do not have the guts to keep steady, who blanche when Premier Edouard Philippe declares: “I will not let anyone say that there was a delay in taking decisions.” The President was not thinking of those who took the wrong decisions over the last decade, himself included.

Hard to stop the questions coming, however persistently Philippe might try. The extreme right’s Marine le Pen is sniffing around looking for opportunities, like Trump, to play on prejudice and fear. Not a problem for Macron. She can be the spectre to scare a majority of the French electorate into voting for him in 2022 as they did in 2017. More of a problem was the decision of the traditional right to trigger a parliamentary inquiry process timed for the autumn.

To head off the critics, an “information session” was arranged between the Elysée and the President of the Assembly, a sort of equivalent of the Speaker, except that they are just nominated by the majority party, resulting at the moment in Richard Ferrand, once a Socialist Party Deputy but jumping ship to be one of Macron’s earliest cronies. Across three hours, Philippe and Health Minister Olivier Véran said little but talked so much that more than one of the 24 hour news chains began switching to other live coverage when it was all barely more than half way through. As with the Grand National Debate that smothered public involvement in the Gilets jaunes crisis, they hope the public will tire and accept the role of patient bystanders.

As with the Grand National Debate that smothered public involvement in the Gilets jaunes crisis, they hope the public will tire and accept the role of patient bystanders.

The right does not intend that the “after Covid” should correct the mistakes of the “before”. Like Macron, it itches to impose more of the same with just enough tweaks to get it past public opinion. Gerard Larcher, the chair of the Senate which is dominated by his Les Républicains, the party that goes back to General de Gaulle, argued “We must rethink the hospital … We need to bring all actors together … public and private.”

It is quite prepared, like Macron, to explore how to re-establish production within France of things considered “strategic” so long as this does not go too far in constraining private enterprise. This approach is why the French states continues to have holdings in some enterprises like Renault, why Dassault sells a rival warplane to the Eurofighter Typhoon (sales subsidised by guaranteed French military contracts and loan guarantees for foreign buyers), why an Italian state shipbuilder buying up half the shares in a French military shipyard caused turmoil a couple of years ago between Paris and Rome.

But dangling now before a frightened public the idea that facemasks might run off a new production line in France is not the same thing as doing it in a year’s time.

Industrial production in China will be out of the post Covid-19 starting blocks quicker than anywhere else. What will happen in other Asian production zones is not yet clear. If the sun does not kill off the virus, India and Bangladesh may descend into a mortal chaos, but those like Malaysia (60 percent of the world’s medical rubber glove production) will fare better. Will French or EU markets be reorganised to the extent that companies and governments forego yet more intoxicating shots of cheap, profit-boosting and austerity-endorsing imports?

Martin Hirsch, the director of the organisation running hospitals in the capital, was back on the largest breakfast time radio show on the Monday of Week 4 facing excoriating calls from listeners over his role in cutting services during the “before”. “All those who have lived very, very close are now immunised against dogma,” he explained. “We have seen the risks of being immobile in a hypercompetitive economy. Yes, I am for leaving dogmas behind. Everyone must do that.”

The catch is in his final phrase: everyone must give up their dogmas. The French public has heard that one before. It was Macron’s mantra during his drive for the presidency. Neither left nor right, but both.

Alerts, appeals, anger and apathy

We, personally, have been very, very close to Covid-19 and to the policy consequences of Macron’s eight-year presence at the summit of the French state. An emergency service ambulance crew was in the building the other night. Efficient, precise in their work half way through a long, long shift, re-assuring in their professionalism, their protective gear was getting tattered. “We have not been tested, tests are not available.”

Or take a telling statistic. In 2008, the French medical safety agency received 44 alerts over looming shortages of medicines or actual cuts in supplies. In 2018, there were 868. Last summer a group of leading doctors issued an appeal calling for stocks of key medicines to be prepared and for a not-for-profit production system to be created across Europe.

The straws in the wind are not encouraging for such a project. Philippe: “The worst thing when we seek to restart the country would be to raise taxes.” Perhaps so for those at the supermarket checkouts, driving the long distance lorries with our food or that ambulance crew, but for those at the top? If not, where will the resources come from to achieve what now needs to be done? And then there is the draft plan for the health service of the future prepared at Macron’s request by the Caisse des dépôts et consignations, the finance and management structure at the heart of the French state. It leaked on April Fools Day, full of suggestions for wider public-private partnerships in the “after coronavirus”. Just as Gerard Larcher wants.

This is not a one-sided debate. Those who criticised the “before” are loud and clear in their hopes for the future, particularly those “very, very close” to the virus. Whatever the party or organisation to the left of those in power, the message has been the same. We cannot run the crisis as we are doing now. And we cannot allow France to reproduce the errors of the past. The phrase comes from a joint appeal by Greenpeace, Oxfam France, the CGT trade union confederation, feminist groups and others: “Let’s build together a future that is green, democratic, feminist and social, one that breaks with the politics followed up to now and with the neo-conservative disorder.”

The problem for those who want this to happen is that this approach has, on specific issue after specific issue, had often overwhelming public support in the opinion polls, but has not managed to impose itself conclusively on any French government over the past nearly 40 years. One thing, for instance, that has been frozen by the virus crisis is the privatisation of Paris’ airports. A deeply unpopular move, the privatisation law could have been reversed by an official referendum gaining 4,700,000 signatures, one tenth of the electorate. Enough support was garnered in the parliament to force the consultation, but after months of public campaigning it secured only 1,066,000 signatures by the closing date of 12 March. It is on that difficulty for the left, that Macron hopes to parry with current public anger and win his bets on France’s future.

Social solidarity

Perhaps. When the air is clear and the temperature right, from the top of our building you can sometimes see the vapour plumes from the giant incineration centres that serve Paris and its immediate suburbs. At Ivry just to the east, Issy-les-Moulineaux to the west and Saint-Ouen to the north-east, the furnaces were stopped for a fortnight on 23 January as part of the strikes against Macron’s attempted abolition of France’s pension system based on social solidarity. They are working 24/7 now, keeping this vast conurbation clean. “No matter what, we will do our job,” said one CGT union delegate at Issy. “But we cannot always be one metre apart when we are handling the rubbish containers and we do not have full protective gear.”

The tone in his voice would have told Macron, had the President deigned to listen: Don’t let you take my kindness for weakness.

A FINAL NOTE. Among those whose lives have been taken by the virus is Rafael Gomez Nieto. He died in Strasbourg at the end of March. On 24 August 1944, he was in a half-track, with the name Guernica painted on its side. A Spanish Republican who fought against Franco from the age of 17 and who had been interned by the French authorities in 1939 after Franco’s victory, he was a soldier in La Nueve, the Ninth Company of the Second Armoured Division of the Free French forces. La Nueve, nearly all of whom were Spanish Republican veterans, was the first unit of the Allied armies to reach the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ city hall, already in the hands of the Résistance.

It’s the prestige seat of local government in France that Agnés Buzyn, Macron’s former health minister, had hoped to occupy after the elections Macron forced France to hold in mid-March. She slithered to an ignominious third place. Where Rafael Gomez Nieto was welcomed as a liberator, she is more likely to be remembered as an aider and abetter in the gang that perpetrated France’s greatest social crime in generations.

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