Can Europe Make It?

“After coronavirus” – Macron's promise

“Bruno le Maire explained solemnly that France was a rich country… We can spend in this moment of crisis… But spend on what?”

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
31 March 2020
French Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud and PM Edouard Philippe answer "Questions to the Government" at the French National Assembly, February 4, 2020.
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Niviere David/PA. All rights reserved.

There is rarely anything like the proselytising energy, no, fury of a new convert. There they were, arsonists all, taking their matches to the pyre of public spending, of vital services, of anything redolent of social solidarity. Now, phoenix-like, they spring from the ashes of our hard-won gains of yesteryear to pronounce themselves fire-fighters extraordinaire. Come, they chorus, the hour of need is upon us: volunteer, donate, assist, let the purses of the state be opened.

Yet how they squealed when we dared to criticise them before the virus began to do its sinister work, when the direct, deadly human consequences of their cynical surgery were already in plain sight.

One now mounted high on the barricade of this official rhetoric against SARS-Cov-2 is a certain Martin Hirsch, the Director of AP-HP the group of hospitals serving the Paris region. “My” hospitals (you can sense what kind of attitude such “leaders” have to society at large and to those who do the real work when they use that pronoun in these circumstances), “my resuscitation wards have more beds available than those taken up by Covid-19 patients”, he told us in mid-March.

A few days later they did not. Hirsch has presided with enthusiasm over the systematic reduction in staff, beds and stocks of equipment that has cut the hospital services in greater Paris to the bone over the past decade and driven staff into a year-long protest. What more did the likes of Hirsch and Macron want? Nurses’ pay in France is at the bottom of the OECD league. Those further down the pecking order, fend no better.

Nurses’ pay in France is at the bottom of the OECD league.

In the St Antoine Hospital last year as the work to rule was well under way, waiting in A&E for four hours, a cleaner was carefully repeating the rhythmic swabbing of the floor in a ceaseless flow of activity, the mop swinging in and out around the chair legs, behind the table, through the doorway and back again, and again, and again. A brief smile asked each of us to move so she could attend to every spec of floor. Hopefully, Hirsch understands the necessity of that work, but does he empathise with the steady, personal discipline required to deliver it on a weekly wage not much more than he would have earned while making that radio appearance?

He has previous. Which, of course, is why he was appointed to his current job by the Council of Ministers in 2013 (that’s the way you get plum public sector jobs in France).

Two years ago, author Edouard Louis wrote about his own father, about how, like millions of others at the lower end of French society, his father’s life and being had been harmed by the policies of spending cuts pursued by successive governments. He entitled the book Qui a tué mon père, Who killed my father. There was no question mark. Among those he indicted was Hirsch. A dozen years ago, working directly to Premier François Fillon (now awaiting judgement on charges of fiddling way over a million from the public purse) Hirsch was responsible for introducing a new benefits system, the RSA or, in English, the Active Solidarity Income, that made life harder for those at the margins, those like Louis père.

Grand gestures

Hirsch, for all his prominence in the media is just a pawn in their game. Higher up the tree, the Finance Minister Bruno le Maire got asked a question by a worried breakfast time listener on a radio phone-in in week two of Macron’s War. Where was all the money coming from that the frugal Bruno was now splashing out here, there and everywhere? How could he afford to shovel these millions into the coffers of private enterprises the length and breadth of France? There was real anxiety in the caller’s voice.

While his stock in trade had up till then been appeals for belt-tightening on public spending that sometimes made Thatcher sound like a spendthrift, Bruno le Maire explained solemnly that France was a rich country. It had great resources. The listener should not worry themselves silly, France’s pockets were deep. We can spend in this moment of crisis.

But spend on what? Money to keep the companies afloat and, through them, employees’ wages paid. Money also for grand gestures. Macron turned up, mask and all in the still empty ward of a small military tent hospital. He spoke of planes taking patients to places under less pressure. Two helicopter carriers were being mobilised by the navy. A TGV was moving a couple of dozen from one end of France to the other. Good for the small number who would benefit but the price paid in cash and staff time was substantial and would have been more effective, doctors said, in reopening the hospital wards his policies have been closing right up to the present moment. Just one problem. The political message in any such drive would have been dangerous for the President. It could have given people ideas.

The political message in any such drive would have been dangerous for the President. It could have given people ideas.

Proper protection

Belatedly, at the end of February, the government had started to impose some restrictions on large gatherings. Anything indoors over 5,000 was banned on Friday 29 February. Trying to make one’s way through the crowds in the Carousel du Louvre, the cavernous underground entrance lobby for the museum, it is easy to accept that the daily average of visitors is over 30,000. It claims to be the world’s biggest and most visited museum. It certainly feels like it when you are pressed in by tourists trying to get their selfie before the Mona Lisa. Right, said the staff, over 5,000? That’s got to include the Louvre.

Reportedly, only two out of a meeting of 300 on Sunday 1 March voted against stopping work. They were using clause L4131-1 in the Code de Travail or Labour Code which gives employees the right to withdraw if they have reasonable grounds to believe they face “a serious and imminent danger to their life or health”. The Louvre did not open that day, nor on the Monday. The management objected that the Prefect – the government official responsible for law and order and a lot else in France’s Departments – had not told them to shut up shop. “The authorities have stated that closure is not necessary.”

Theirs was not the only place where employees and the unions were saying either give us proper protection – masks, screens, gloves, disinfectant gels, properly disinfected workplaces – or, in going to work, we will only further spread the virus. In the big supermarkets, the transport system, in all sorts of places where employees and the public are in direct contact, the same shop floor message was spreading.

In stepped Muriel Pénicaud, the Minister of Labour. We got to see her a lot in the months after Macron’s election when she pushed through new employment laws, changing the Code de Travail. She emerged from a cabinet meeting on 5 March to explain that “the right to withdraw (under L4131-1) is never collective. It is individual . . . We must not panic . . . You have to be in close and long contact for a risk of infection to exist.” The staff at the Louvre had by then opened up the museum again on a promise of some action. But on 13 March, the Louvre, like all other museums across France, was finally closed. Two weeks had been lost.

What was Pénicaud’s real concern in damping down that burgeoning popular movement? Partly, perhaps, the stated concern that the economy needed to keep moving. But much more important was the carefully unstated concern that to allow any democratic element in the response to this crisis would be to open the door to further democratic management of France and its economy in the future, in that “after coronavirus” that Macron has promised.

One can imagine what would have happened had the Louvre closed fully in the interests of the safety of staff and the public after that Sunday vote of the 300. But an active role for the trade unions and those they represent is not on the Macron agenda. Their duty is to follow, they have no right to take part in leading.

An active role for the trade unions and those they represent is not on the Macron agenda. Their duty is to follow.

Cooperative workers

Pénicaud’s fingerprints are all over another telling little history.

We buy tea in quantities. Perhaps more than we really need. The packets we throw in the supermarket trolley have a prominent “1336” emblazoned on their sides. It’s the number of days that the workers in the former Lipton plant at Geminos near Marseilles defended their machinery from the multinational that wanted to ship it all to Poland. The workers were, in the end, lucky. They won their campaign before Macron and Pénicaud’s revised Code de Travailstruck. Their workers’ co-op now, in the words of one of my favourite Watersons’ songs, “makes good tea”.

Lipton is a small part of the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever. Luxfer Gerzat is just a part of a much smaller multinational, the Nottingham-based Luxfer. In the Puy de Dome town of Gerzat, its speciality has been oxygen cylinders for fire fighters and the health service, particularly ambulances and treatment at home. It is the only continental European plant capable of turning out high-pressure, light-weight cylinders of the type required for these purposes. Useful items, one might think. Indeed the home page of the parent company’s website declares: “Luxfer coronavirus update: Continuing production for critical industries.” It adds that “We operate facilities in the US, UK, France …”

Forget any thoughts of continuing production. At the moment there is just one person in the factory out of the previous 136. They are there as a symbolic reminder of the workers’ occupation that started on 20 January. That day, contractors hired by Luxfer turned up to wreck the place. The company had been trying to close the plant since the autumn of 2018. The changes to the Code de Travail that went live at the start of this year gave the company a green light to act. Pénicaud’s ministry approved the final dismissal notices for the workforce in the first week of February as SARS-Cov-2 was digging its claws firmly into France.

The CGT union representative for the employees, Axel Peronczyk, had spent months lobbying government to get ministers to agree to back a workers cooperative to run the plant. There are many other workers coops in France. La Belle Aude makes superb ice cream just outside Carcassonne, and like the former Lipton workers they bring together the social and environmental with a strong emphasis on organic ingredients. They will both be hard hit by this crisis. MyFerryLink was making a real go of operating Channel ferries out of Calais until hung out to dry by the government of President Hollande and his economics minister, a certain Emmanuel Macron. What hope for Luxfer Gerzat?

When Macron said that as part of the “after coronavirus” France should take back its “sovereignty” over vital production, Peronczyk called on the government to nationalise Luxfer Gerzat and get the place working again. Not a peep out of Paris.

The indispensable people

It took a fortnight of killing, of closure, of crisis beyond his control, to bring Edward Philippe to sing, on Day 12 of Macron’s War, an early morning paean of praise to every group of public sector workers he could think of, to those in the cold fields of winter, those ensuring clean water and constant power, those in the transport system; people “whose job is often hard and difficult”; “without them the country would stop completely”; “the country must thank them” “and to those who perhaps I have forgotten”.

The working classes were suddenly heroes who Philippe hopes will not notice that his government has chipped off some more chunks of their rights in a packet of 25 decrees rushed through on the back of the French parliament’s adoption of a law declaring a “health emergency”. Nor that his great plan announced on Day 13 to counter the epidemic with a billion face masks made in China and several thousand ventilators scrabbled from here or there, had not a word about engaging with France’s productive classes and those who represent them.

Of course, Macron and Philippe have their defenders. They have been hard at it on the 24-hour chat and news channels talking up the belated and authoritarian actions of the government, discussing endlessly the finer points of a disease on which they are inexpert, decrying the critics who have been pointing to the responsibility of those like Hirsch, Macron, Philippe and Pénicaud for where France is now.

One such, Christophe Barbier, former boss of the weekly l’Express, is a paid commentator for the private tv station BFMTV. As I was finishing this article he was on the screen. Come on, he jeered at the critics, no one saw this coming, no one warned of what is happening. He got his answer over a video link, from Christophe Prudhomme, an A&E doctor and spokesperson for their professional association, AMUF. Oh yes we did, he reminded viewers, many of us and over many years, but, when it came to the leaders of this country, “we were crying in the desert”. And, the doctor added, the money has always been there, but tucked away in tax havens or in dividends. He did not add: where Bruno Le Maire has allowed it to stay. But you can.

Google him and you will see how many times, how comprehensively, how passionately and for how long he had been repeating that message. He had mentioned treatment wards and equipment in a hospital in his part of the Paris suburbs that Hirsch and his accountants had lined up for closure. Much, he said, had already gone, but some we have just now been able to save and get working again. I took a chance on getting him on his mobile. “It’s the Jean-Verdier in Bondy,” he said quickly. “But I have to go. I’m on the ward. More patients are coming in.”

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