Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Macron’s collusion with COVID has not destroyed France’s spirit

For an 11th time, the French president has promised light at the end of the COVID tunnel. No wonder public anger has been stirring

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
13 April 2021, 3.02pm
La Criée theatre, at the Old Harbour of Marseille, France
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Wikicommons/Pingelig. Some rights reserved

Aux arts mes citoyen-ne-s! That play on the chorus line in France’s national anthem, “To arms, citizens!”, was on the banner hanging over a general assembly of the artists and theatre workers of Marseilles, who have been occupying two of the city’s main theatres since mid-March. On 25 March, more than 80 theatres and cultural centres around France were being occupied in a movement kicked off at the start of the month in Odeon Theatre in the heart of Paris by members of the left-wing trade union confederation, the CGT.

In a handful of cases, the authorities have intervened to end the occupations. As they have done so, other theatres have joined the movement.

For the assembly, some hundred-plus activists had come together from the Criée, in a former fish auction house on the waterfront of the Marseilles’ Old Port, and the Merlan theatre, created some 40 years ago in one of the city’s densely packed neighbourhoods of concrete flats after the police killing of a local man.

They are both public theatres dedicated to cultural creativity and consolidating links between that inventiveness and the communities around them, a particularly hard task when faced with the shutdown imposed under the government’s epidemic requirements, which rule out reopening theatres even with proper distancing and protection procedures.

Worse, on 1 July, welfare changes that will cut unemployment pay for some jobseekers – pushed through by President Emmanuel Macron just before the start of last year’s spring lockdown – will finally come into operation. Many theatre workers, actors, technicians and support staff, like other cultural employees in France, work under an unemployment benefit regime known as ‘intermittence’, which takes account of their irregularity of employment but still leaves them poorly paid. They will be particularly hard hit by the changes.

The occupation at the Criée is serious, well controlled and run on strict COVID hygiene principles. None of which rules out high hopes or vigorous debate on how to achieve their aims. The theatre occupiers confronted the key challenge: how could they reach out to other vulnerable workers paying the price for Macron’s approach to the epidemic? They hope to stay in occupation until any epidemic restrictions are lifted.

France – a social tinderbox

The Saturday before the assembly, there had been a large street rally in Marseille against the Global Security Law of interior minister Gérald Darmanin. On the Sunday, a street festival of many thousands saw that minister’s head in effigy was paraded on a chariot to the jeers of thousands.

Not everyone joined the festival to make a political point. Some used it as an occasion to create mayhem or publicly refuse to wear the obligatory face masks. Marseille’s Socialist Party mayor, Benoît Payan, spoke of “the egoism of a few irresponsible people” after some urinated at the spot where eight died as their decrepit, aging homes collapsed upon them in 2018 – a catastrophe that triggered the popular movement that gave the Left control of Marseille’s town hall in 2020.

Nihilism is not the spirit of the theatre occupations nor the street protests by cultural workers. They are enlivened by the singer and activist HK with his new composition ‘We want to dance again’ – the version he took to a demonstration by Marseille hospital workers mobilised by the CGT in January. Now the anthem for this ‘Aux arts mes citoyen-ne-s’ movement, his song’s lyrics are about opposition to the creeping authoritarianism and austerity of Macron’s regime, not a rejection of hygiene rules.

On 12 March, the actor Corrine Masiero, made headlines by going naked at the Césars, France’s version of the Oscars, in protest over Macron’s slow strangulation of the cultural sector. Currently participating in the occupation of her theatre in the northern town of Lille, she has used HK’s anthem to structure a video protest over the president’s treatment of the hospital system.

HK’s song’s lyrics are about opposition to the creeping authoritarianism and austerity of Macron’s regime, not a rejection of hygiene rules

France has long been little short of a social tinderbox. The epidemic has temporarily restrained any mass movement, but the anger is deeper and more cynical now than a year ago.

The president’s experiment in participatory democracy, the Citizens Convention on the Environment, offered 149 proposals last summer. He said he could not accept three of them but that the rest would be put before parliament or implemented directly, all “unfiltered”. The draft law that parliament will vote on in mid-April takes up only ten “unfiltered”. So there were protests across the country on the last weekend of March.

Lone navigator of COVID-19

Go to any town in France of any size since the start of the year and you would have found a factory or other workplace being closed down, unions organising pickets, delegations and protests. Talk to any journalists’ organisation and the tale is one of greater and greater control or the difficulties blocking proper reporting. One example of the latter is the way the daily total of deaths from COVID-19 has disappeared from news bulletins.

The total number of recorded French COVID deaths settled at just over 30,000 when the first lockdown ended in mid-May last year. It started on a steady upward curve from mid-October. The epidemic, fuelled by the more contagious variants began to accelerate in December but Macron side-lined his scientific advisers and rejected their calls for a lockdown, allowing the total of deaths to reach 97,000 by the end of the Easter break.

It is at moments like this that the president feels he is at his best: the lone navigator, white water rafting through the turbulent rapids of a society on which he is forcing changes the people do not want. Why shouldn’t he feel confident? Hasn’t he broken the country’s strongest link in its proletarian chain, its railway workers, after a strongly supported national strike? Didn’t he manage to quell by means fair and foul the extraordinary outburst of the Gilets jaunes? Hasn’t he broken the chain of support that united the country’s hard-pressed hospital workers and the general public during the first lockdown? Isn’t most of what he wanted to get on the statute book in his first term as president there now?

What shocks is not his confident arrogance. France’s Fifth Republic, with its unique concentration of powers in the hands of one elected leader, is constructed for such a personality.

What shocks is the moral insensibility of a president who puts no apparent weight on the fact that tens of thousands have died. “I have no mea culpa to offer,” he told the TV cameras as the Marseille theatre occupiers were meeting for their general assembly. He had not been wrong to keep rejecting a new lockdown since December. “I have no remorse,” the viewers heard him declare.

But, less than a week later, when the hospitals were screaming that they could not handle any more acute COVID cases, Macron announced, on the last day of March, not a new lockdown – he refuses to use the French equivalent, ‘confinement’ – but further measures “to slow the virus”. His refusal to accept the advice of his scientific advisers “had gained precious days of liberty, without ever losing control of the epidemic”. Except that thousands more had been added to the lists of the dead.

Isn’t most of what he wanted to get on the statute book in his first term as president there now?

Yet hadn’t he told us on the first day of March that we should “hold on” as “in four to six weeks” the country would be opening up? That had been the tenth time since the start of the epidemic that he, or one of his ministers, had offered the lie that the end of the tunnel was just a few weeks away. His 31 March lockdown announcement contained the 11th: France would have to “live with the virus, it’s like that” but the controls he was applying to the whole of the country would be relaxed as from mid-May, a mere six weeks away.

He rubbed salt into the public’s wounds by talking of “collective choices we have made” when in fact they are taken by him in the enclave of a ‘Health Security Council’ whose deliberations are covered by military defence secrecy rules. No wonder opposition deputies and senators of Left and Right walked out when his prime minister Jean Castex turned up to get a parliamentary rubber stamp on decisions Macron had already taken.

Collusion with the virus

If one knows that a danger is looming but one does nothing about it, at what point does knowledge and involvement make the move from complacency to connivance and, ultimately, to collusion with the forces ensuring that a threat becomes a dominating, fatal reality? That question has been posed twice before the French public this past month.

The French drug company Servier was finally convicted after a two-year long trial for selling its diabetes drug Mediator despite accumulating evidence of its potentially fatal side effects. At least 500 died, some suggest 2,000. In the words of the judgement, “Despite knowing of the risks, they never took the necessary measures and so were guilty of deceit”.

In that instance, direct responsibility cannot be laid at a French president’s door. In the case of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, it can, that of socialist president François Mitterrand. A commission of historians established two years ago by Macron reported that it could find no document in the archives it was able to see, that proved a “willingness to be associated in the genocidal enterprise” of the regime Mitterrand had been financing, arming, training, all but cuddling, amid escalating racist violence (“tribal conflict” in the vocabulary of Mitterrand, “ethnic purification” for his generals).

On page 455 of the report you can read an extract from a note by the French intelligence service, the DGSE, dated 22 June 1994, as the killing frenzy was at its worst: “There is a great danger that France will see itself accused, at the best, of not having fulfilled the mission it was entrusted with and, at worst, of being seen as complicit with the present Rwandan government” – that is, with those responsible for the slaughter.

What is the point of intelligence services if their on-the-spot analysis is ignored? Or of epidemiologists if their scientific understanding is cast into the coffin along with the bodies of those whose lives a president’s arrogance complicity with the virus has allowed the epidemic to consume? The sentiment of that 1994 note is present today in the hospitals Macron has systematically underfunded.

By chance, his new measures “to slow the virus” came into full force on 6 April, the exact fifth anniversary of the day he launched his movement En Marche! while still a minister under President François Hollande. It was when he told us that having a stab at being president was “not a priority” for him. But then, for Macron, life is always play in which others are the actors as he gets to rewrite the script according to his needs of the moment.

No wonder HK’s anthem has been heard in town after town with its refrain: “When, on the evening screen, The grand king is seen, There to pronounce our sentence, We will reply with irreverence, Though always with elegance.” Aux arts mes citoyen-ne-s!

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