Can Europe Make It?

Three months into France’s phoney war

Even with the example of China grappling with the epidemic before it, Europe managed to leapfrog into pole position as the killer continent supreme. What does this mean for Macron and Philippe?

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
24 March 2020
Emmanuel Macron, Edouard Philippe and Health Minister Olivier Veran leave the Elysee Palace after a call conference to install the CARE committee. March 24, 2020
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Marin Ludovic/PA. All rights reserved.

The biggest social event in France this year? The 25 million plus audience for the television address by President Emmanuel Macron on the coronavirus crisis on the evening of Thursday 12 March. His watchword? “We need to gain time!” On the Monday, with only one weekend in time gained, 35 million tuned in to hear him declare six times in 21 minutes: “We are at war”.

In the fragmented world of the modern French mass media, these were record figures, audiences without precedent for an event without precedent in the lifetime of anyone under a hundred years old. More seriously, they are larger by far than the number of French electors who went to vote on the Sunday, just over 20 million out of the 45 million on the rolls. So a moment of generous social solidarity? You might think so from one phrase that stood out in what was a rather haltingly delivered speech on the Thursday: “Trials like these are never surmounted by staying solitary. It is by solidarity, in saying ‘we’ rather than thinking ‘I’, that we will face up to this immense challenge.”

And four days later, he declared that, just as there had been “a before” this epidemic, there would, at some undefined time, be “an after”.

Révolution

If that sounds like the forecast of a world to be turned upside down in the interests of the many, don’t hold your breath. At the end of 2017 Macron did what all aspiring French political leaders do, he published a book outlining his philosophy. Révolution was the title. France was on the verge of a civil war, he announced. Decisive, sweeping action was needed. Radical change must be pushed through, the economy transformed, the trade unions neutered, the social benefits and pensions system replaced, the French parliament cut down to size.

His mantra was “risk”. “We have entered a civilisation of risk. Not just in the way the economy should work . . . The French must take more risks.” He is probably very happy that it has been hard this winter to find a copy of that book as France sped into the clutches of SARScov-2 with him at the helm ignoring another watchword he pronounced in Révolution: “We have always thought of the world.”

What has never been at risk in his project are the powers he had his eyes on: the powers of the French presidency. Bringing more collective democracy and accountability was the one thing he did not propose in Révolution. The state should have more power, civil society less, in determining national priorities.

Bringing more collective democracy and accountability was the one thing he did not propose in Révolution.

“The state must give much more place to the social partners when it comes to social negotiations and decisions in the enterprise and less when it comes to running the system. It will be a tough struggle,” he wrote. The role of others is to get below stairs and never presume to any right to determine what his government should do.

A year and a half ago, to drive down diesel use – France has been drunk on the stuff for decades – the price was pushed up, devastating the budgets of poorer drivers with no other available transport. The explosion of anger that became the Gilets Jaunes had roundabouts occupied, town centres hosting weekly rallies and the opinion polls, as for all his other “reforms”, firmly against the President. Nasty police violence, some careful concessions and the promise that after a “Grand National Debate” the President would offer solutions, helped to erode the active opposition. The ‘debate’ consisted of exchanges between audiences of local mayors or selected members of the public and Macron. He answered every point, often in bravura performances than ran for hours and hours.

Risk

In the very first of these debates in a small Normandy town, sealed off from the protesters by squads of police, the left wing mayor from nearby Bernay asked why the maternity unit in the town’s hospital was being shut down. It was one of the few occasions when Macron temporised, offering a shifty reply of half-truths. Before the ‘great debate’ had concluded, the hospital’s emergency ward staff had joined colleagues across France in a work to rule in protest at chronic shortages of staff and equipment. En grève banners were everywhere when I carried my partner into that ward after she broke her ankle in a cycling accident nearby. They were there when I wheeled her to the St Antoine Hospital, one of Paris’ largest, round the corner from our flat, to have the plaster taken off.

They were still there, if a bit tattered after a year of action, when Macron addressed the French public with “I am counting on you . . . because we are a nation”. Oddly enough that was just the exchange he had had in the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital just over the Seine from us two weeks earlier. He had gone to meet some of those he now terms “the heroes in white coats” and was caught on camera in an exchange: Doctor: “We are at our limits.” Macron: “I am there.” Doctor: “No you are not … We have had a year of denial … Now you have to act.” Macron: “I am counting on you.” Doctor: “Ah, you can count on me, but the reverse is yet to be demonstrated.”

The President preferred to run the risk that he knew better than the doctor. That day, the Oise department, just to the north of Paris, saw the first death in France with health ministry officials identifying “a chain of infection” there. The minister took his lead from above: though there wasn’t one, “we are prepared for an epidemic”.

Risk is something the French state has long been happy to engage with. The country is, for instance, more dependent on nuclear power for its electricity generation than any other in the world. Public complacency has been secured by low prices for consumers. But the reactors are now old. Worse, three years ago, one of France’s nuclear safety agencies revealed an extraordinary history of errors in the manufacture of the 58 reactors and the falsification of documents in a systematic decades-long cover up by their constructor.

Macron’s Health Minister, Agnes Buzyn, a doctor by profession, was the head of the parallel IRSN safety agency from 2008 to 2013 when it was drawing up what is still France’s official National Response Plan for a Major Nuclear Accident published in 2014. Much of the plan details how an inter-ministerial committee should work. On page 19 you find a statement that “The Prime Minister determines the main action approaches for (its) work in the preparation of the political and strategic choices for state announcements.”

This becomes interesting as an example of how the French state operates in the context of what Buzyn has now said about what she did when the risk of Covid-19 loomed this January and February.

Agnes Buzyn

She was pushed out of the health ministry at the end of February and into the election of Mayor of Paris after the President’s favoured candidate, former government spokesperson Benjamin Grivaux, was caught out having sent to his then mistress a smart phone video of himself masturbating. His campaign was already collapsing. Buzyn did no better, coming a sorry third.

Then, in the bitter disappointment of that electoral slap in the face, she revealed that she had warned the Premier, Edouard Philippe, of the seriousness of the situation at the end of January. The daily Le Monde cited her as saying on the Monday: “The 20th of December I warned the Director General for Health (Jérôme Salomon, who now graces tv screens with a daily litany of the toll in infections and deaths) The 11th of January, I sent a message to the President on the situation. The 30th of January, I advised Philippe that the elections could not go ahead.” The final quote from her in the paper? “I always say ‘Minister one day, doctor everyday’. The hospital is going to have need of me. There are going to be thousands of deaths.”

Buzyn was responding in these behind the scenes messages to what she was receiving from the UN’s World Health Organisation. Notice how the United Nations and its agencies has been sidelined by European governments in this crisis? The WHO did not get a mention during either of his addresses. You would not know from listening to him that the WHO had been raising the alarm since 10 January when it sent a National Capacities review tool for a novel coronavirus to every government in the world. Test, test, test; prepare, prepare prepare, it repeated and repeated.

Notice how the United Nations and its agencies has been sidelined by European governments in this crisis?

Yet, and here Buzyn shows how good a member of his band she was, she came out of a cabinet meeting 13 days later to tell us: “In terms of the risks for France, the analyses of the risk of importing (the virus) are regularly modelled by research teams. The risk of importing a case from Wuhan is moderate, it is now practically nil because the town is isolated. The risk of secondary cases around an imported case are very low and the risks of propagation of the coronavirus are very low.”

But what is a “very low” risk? What does “practically nil” mean? Also that day the National Institute for Health and Medical Research or INSERM, a kind of equivalent of the Medical Research Council and part of the Office for National Statistics bundled together, issued a report modelling the risk of importing coronavirus into Europe. All theoretical, of course, with outcomes determined by the modellers’ assumptions, but to quote the report: “The risk of an infected passenger arriving in France is 5% in scenario 1 and 13% in scenario 2.” Neither figure adds up to nil. The very next day, Buzyn announced the first three cases in France, all three were people who had come from Wuhan.

Whatever the caveats about such a model, it is not possible to believe that France would just have carried on as normal had Buzyn in her nuclear safety role said there was a possible 13% risk of an accident at one of the four reactors at the Tricastin nuclear plant (you can see them as you take the motorway south from Lyons squatting on the banks of a canal beside the Rhone like giant concrete pepper pots slowly mouldering in the sun and lying in ambush for a chance to make life impossible downstream in Avignon and Marseilles).

The minister and the institute were careful to add all the caveats about how things coronavirus might change. But what did not change was the inaction of the authorities. We know it for the simple reason that nurses, doctors and other carers across the country have no masks, they cannot test for the virus, that disinfectant gels are in desperately short supply, that resuscitation wards have too few ventilators, that there are too few emergency beds, no preparation of emergency isolation accommodation, that doctors in the eastern region of France have already had to triage who they put on ventilators . . .

But what did not change was the inaction of the authorities.

Big decisions

Naturally, those still in Macron’s coterie have been putting the knife into Buzyn. “She’s away with the fairies,” one minister told the weekly Marianne. “She never said that in the ministerial council,” they added, referring to those claims that she had warned Macron and Philippe. Maybe she never said anything clear and precise in the cabinet sessions – when Macron chairs sessions he apparently has the habit of sharply interrupting ministers who talk for what for him is too long – but we know she did tell Philippe because the premier has told us so.

The day after Le Monde published her remarks he went on the evening television to say that she had “said to me at the end of January that if we were at the peak of the epidemic at the moment of the elections, then it would be difficult to organise them but, at the moment that she said that to me, many doctors were not in agreement with her.” He added: “We took it seriously. From January we took big decisions.”

Quite what a health minister is there to do in the French system if the Prime Minister can just flick aside their opinion on the basis that they have heard something else from another doctor, is not clear, but remember who decides when it comes to a nuclear accident. And then read the WHO review tool on ‘risk communication’: “Are there mechanisms in place for the rapid clearance of timely and transparent communication messaging and materials in such crisis situation? Do those in senior government leadership understand the importance of releasing timely and transparent information to protect the public’s health even when there is uncertainty or when there may be political sensitivities?”

The French government has opened a site on advice to the public about coronavirus which includes a section on what it has done. You can see it at https://www.gouvernement.fr/info-coronavirus. Go to the section Les mesures prises par le Gouvernement and scroll down to Chronologie and you get a list of actions since January 10. It makes for very sad reading, particularly if you track the entries against the daily alerts from the WHO.

‘Big decisions’ are few and far between. One that has held the headlines these past few days is the delivery of an army field hospital to Mullhouse in the east where the hospitals are over crowded. It has made for good images on the tv news bulletins. But the ‘big decision’ to do that was only taken just before Macron spoke, even though the delivery process takes a fortnight. This field hospital offers 30 beds. That is less than the number of acute care beds that have been closed on an average each week over the past decade. The grand total is around 20,000. At what point in this whole process did Philippe take a ‘big decision’ to cancel planned closures of such hospital facilities? To listen, for a moment, to those en grève?

This field hospital offers 30 beds. That is less than the number of acute care beds that have been closed on an average each week over the past decade.

Of course, the nuclear accident plan is not the only one the French governmental system has in its filing cabinets. One that was activated, as the chronology records, on 13 February is the Plan ORSAN, the plan for the organisation of health services in an emergency. But this is a plan to be operated at the level of the basic, individual organisations of the health service, each hospital, ambulance network and the like. It is not a plan for government as a whole. It did not reverse the catastrophic decisions we now learn were taken on the production of face masks, it did not get that field hospital out of moth balls, prepare the national crisis production of disinfectant gels, of ventilators, or size up what by way of hotels, student accommodation and the like could be requisitioned and equipped as the epidemic accelerated.

Other priorities

In the Matignon, the offices of Philippe, there is another plan, the National Plan for prevention and dealing with pandemic flu: A document to help in preparation and decision taking. Immediately we are in a different territory. This is for the top of the governmental decision-taking tree. As it says on page 4 (Philippe and Macron must have an attention span long enough to let them get to that point): “This is a reminder of the preparatory action to take before the epidemic”. Had it been followed, we would not be where we are now, in grave difficulties, yes, but in motion against the epidemic. It does not feature in the Chronologie. Not a minister mentioned it during France’s two months of phoney war.

The unit responsible for the plan is also that responsible for military and terrorist threats. Perhaps its own eye was taken off the ball. Perhaps, but there was also something deeper at work. The Matignon unit responsible for the pandemic plan was also responsible for the decision to stop keeping a large enough stock of face masks to cope with an epidemic and to operate with a far smaller stock on a just-in-time supply principle with EU competition rules meaning that the cheaper supplier, inevitably outside France, got the deal.

Other priorities is also why the left in France was so slow to act. It had been engaged in a massive battle of strikes and protests since the start of December against Macron’s drive to sweep away France’s current pensions system, one based on social solidarity, and replace it with one, as yet not fully defined, based on an individual’s relationship with the state. Philippe was ramming the new law through the French parliament even as Macron was considering the first drafts of his tv address. (As for Macron’s ‘after coronavirus’, that pensions law has not been withdrawn, only suspended).

Other priorities is also why the left in France was so slow to act.

For the President, the imperative of the moment has quickly become the mask behind which the incompetence of the past is obscured. The issue pinpointed by Ministers is the behaviour of individuals, not the public mobilisation of a national effort to construct, to manufacture, to deliver, to use every ounce of scientific skill and industrial muscle, a mobilisation that would not work unless it builds upon the social solidarity and the democratic inclusiveness of the pension system they have just taken an axe to.

From our flat

Our flat, to which we have been confined since having been advised by our GP that we “very probably” have Covid-19, is just opposite a primary school, the local polling station in every election. Breakfasting on the day of the vote, we could see that someone had pasted overnight on the special placards for the posters of the different candidates, hand-written sheets declaring BUZIN l’hôpital ne pardonne PAS! Buzyn, the hospital won’t forgive!

Paris is silent, the traffic pollution has gone, oddly enough the sirens of ambulances rushing to the two giant hospitals near us have gone quiet as well. On the net, one hospital worker, Florence V, started a petition kicked off with a photo of a placard they have written: Je suis un soldat qu’on envoie au front sans arme, I am a soldier sent to the front unarmed.

For Florence, the rich and their companies, so pampered by Macron’s policies since he first entered the Elysée as a presidential adviser just two months short of eight years ago, should now be helping the health emergency. Didn’t Bernard Arnault, France’s richest, the head of LVMH the world leader in luxury goods, rush to offer millions when Notre Dame burnt after those responsible took the risk – that word again - that ancient, faulty wiring could last another year or two because replacing it would be too expensive? Did the fact that much of his money could be claimed back against tax make him hesitate for one moment in showing his generosity? Could I hesitate in signing Florence’s petition?

I am a soldier sent to the front unarmed.

How Buzyn will live with her conscience, only time will tell. But what does this shocking moral and practical catastrophe in which, even with the example of China grappling with the epidemic before it, Europe managed to leapfrog into poll position as the killer continent supreme, mean for Macron or Philippe?

The answer came at the end of the first week of Macron’s “war”. Ouf, people were still out and about too much. The President had seen somewhat of a crowd in a park. They were “taking this lightly. You have to take responsibility. Being a citizen means doing that.” Philippe denounced ‘negligent, rash and unthinking’ behaviour. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner waded in to add that people ‘under-estimate the risk’ and were ‘imbeciles’.

Rummaging around in the biggest dictionary you can find will not give you better words to describe France’s President, his ministers and what they did in the first three months of 2020.

And, No, those two speeches were not France’s greatest social event. The doctors, nurses, health workers across the country, the public, so wanted them to be, to be a moment of honesty and of mobilisation without compromise. Instead, we saw someone desperately trying to find the hole in which to shove his finger after they had already let the dyke get washed away around them.

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