How virus crisis is changing the face - and politics - of French society

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The ongoing Coronavirus health crisis facing France is leading to unprecedented political change. Large sections of society are on the march: taking charge of their own professions themselves and setting up numerous support structures and initiatives. And as François Bonnet argues in this op-ed article, this sudden land grab of some very political arenas by new groups has left society's traditional  institutions and political forces flat-footed.

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The French government keeps repeating the point: the end of the lockdown – which started to be relaxed on May 11th - is primarily a health challenge, as we learn to live with the Covid-19 epidemic. But what the government does not say is the extent to which these first days of monitored freedom and the months to follow are set to become an absolutely unprecedented political experiment.

This health crisis has exposed many failings and as a result some of the power and decision-making systems which until now had been firmly locked in place are starting to fracture. Society as a whole is stepping into the gaps that have been created. This could throw up some radical new opportunities in the coming years. And it could even completely redraw the political landscape.

For what is the current state of play after a crisis that has been extraordinary both in its suddenness and scale? Central government has shown its weakness and faces unprecedented dissatisfaction, even outright rejection – at levels greater than anywhere else in Europe. Its underestimation of the challenge in the first months, its lack of preparedness, the empty warlike posturing of the head of state Emmanuel Macron, the lies, the condescending speeches; everyone, or just about everyone, has understood all this and taken it as a given.

But there are many other factors which will doubtless have a massive effect, even if it is still too soon to know the precise extent. The two months of lockdown – from March 17th to May 11th in France – have profoundly altered our relationship to work, to how we behave as consumers, to managers, to the iron laws governing workplace hierarchy in France, to company strategies, and to the way shareholders think.

These two months have torn down the economic dogma which insisted that it was 'irresponsible' or forbidden to question issues such as the never-ending chipping away at the scope of public services, a tax system which fuels inequality, an insistence on the need for growth, the organisation of the country around large urban areas, and an obsession with public finance deficits and debt.

Who today would dare to insist that “the state's budget is like a household's budget”? Yet we have been listening to this refrain for years from the Right – in the form of former prime minister François Fillon – from the centre in the shape of former justice minister François Bayrou, and President Emmanuel Macron who has declared that there is “no magic money”. And we have heard it from a few leading socialists too.

Finally, these last two months have completely changed our image of social hierarchies. We have rediscovered this phrase from the 1789 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen' which has been ignored for too long: “Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.”. We now question or criticise the social utility of the “first on the rope team” - to use the expression employed by President Macron to describe the better-off in society – when those who were the first to carry on with their everyday jobs in society during the crisis were the very same groups who had previously been dismissed as mere “nobodies”, people who were invisible to and ignored by our authorities.

It is, therefore, a quiet revolution which is taking place in lockdowned flats and houses. As people have been forced to stop work or work in very different ways, they have begun to question their relationships to others, to society and to the idea of the collective. In doing so people have inevitably debated the way we live, our social system, the way our politics works. They have also sought to assess the scale of the social violence and suffering caused by the lockdown, which the coming months will amplify with the looming 'social tsunami' (read the article by Mediapart's Laurent Mauduit, in French, here).

This is what is unprecedented: the pause button has been pressed on the economy yet never before has French society taken part in such a profound debate and with such diverse approaches. They did not need an outline of some hypothetical sunlit outcomes that might occur after the Covid crisis to do this. Instead, from the start of lockdown, and then as it has eased and we start to live in our new restricted freedoms, large sections of society have got to work. And in doing so they have come up with an array of different initiatives and actions.

Healthcare staff were the first to show the way. Faced with government incompetence, health workers have come together and, working establishment by establishment, have reinvented their hospitals, doubling the number of intensive care beds, reorganising hospital units and their functions, and putting in place new networks. Many say that they have rediscovered the “meaning of their profession”, the power of collective efforts, the joy of self-organisation, the freedom to take initiatives and the responsibility that goes along with that.

What has been the government's response to these workers? The offer of a bonus, which has already been shown to be something of an illusion, perhaps a medal revived from the 19th century, the award of the state's highest honour the Légion d'Honneur for the most deserving, and perhaps a special parade on Bastille Day, July 14th! In this way a grateful Nation thanks its nice children; the current monarchy-style Republic rewards its good subjects just as Napoleon Bonaparte showed his support for his veteran Old Guard troops.

French hospital staff mock the announcement that they may get medals for their efforts. © COLLECTIF INTER-HOPITAUX

The inter-hospital collective which had already been organising protests about the situation in accident and emergency units well before the Covid-19 crisis quickly showed its anger over these latest infantile ideas. For in fact a rather more substantial battle is already underway in hospitals against the “return of the spreadsheets”, bean-counting managers, financial objectives and activity-based costing in the health service. Workers are also fighting for higher salaries and for healthcare careers to be more highly valued.

The new factor now is that the nursing staff, supported by the general public, finally have the upper hand in their fight to make their voices heard. “No Return to the Abnormal!” is their slogan. It is a winning formula. And they are not alone.

Teachers, too, are in the process of making the same case. Faced with an education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has been bypassed by events, having been caught unawares by his own president – first of all over the timing of the school closures in March, then their reopening in May - and openly opposed by his own senior civil servants (see their blog on Mediapart by the 'Groupe Grenelle', the name coming from rue de Grenelle, the Paris address of the Ministry of Education), teachers have themselves invented new practices, working school by school and class by class. Away from the education authorities and the school inspectorates, the great majority of teachers have taken it upon themselves to choose and organise the details of the return to school.

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