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08.05.2020 Europe

What now for France? Covid-19 ushers in calls to rethink society

By Christina Okello - RFI
REUTERS - Benoit Tessier
LISTEN MAY 8, 2020
REUTERS - Benoit Tessier

After the chaos wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, people in France are wondering what the future will bring. Some hope the crisis will lead to greater solidarity, others fear it may amplify the existing fractures in society.

The contours of what the future may look like were sketched in a televised address on 13 April by President Emmanuel Macron in which he vowed to recast the social contract to favour those left out.

But even as the country prepares to come out of lockdown on 11 May, few are convinced we are on the cusp of a new era. Controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq said Monday the world would be "just the same, just a bit worse."

Even before the arrival of Covid-19, France was battling several crises at once.

Simmering tensions

“We haven't forgotten the crises that led us here,” says Willy Pelletier, a sociologist and coordinator of the Copernic Foundation, a left-leaning think tank in Paris.

“Hospitals were already struggling before the pandemic; now they are overwhelmed,” he tells RFI, blaming this on Macron's liberalising drive to overhaul the health sector.

Government efforts to transform the country's lauded but costly healthcare system led to funding cuts and a reduction in the number of beds and medical staff. Last year, thousands of burnt-out health workers walked off the job, warning that care services were on the brink of collapse.

“We haven't forgotten that the government still hasn't scrapped its unemployment benefit reform,” says Pelletier of the bill making it tougher for the jobless to claim benefits to encourage them to return to work.

Helping the rich

Changes to the labour market were what brought thousands of yellow vests out onto the streets in November 2018 to protest against the pro-business policies of a president seen as favouring the rich.

“The government has found billions to help companies like Air France and retailers weather the pandemic, whereas families need help,” Pelletier says.

Although authorities have offered a financial rescue package for small companies likely to face bankruptcy, Pelletier says they must go further.

“We need a cap on rent prices, especially in the Paris region, because once the dust settles, more jobs are going to be slashed and people will simply not be able to afford to pay.”

The European Union predicted Wednesday a “recession of historic proportions this year”, warning that France's economy would shrink by about 8.2 percent.

Stage set for Le Pen

In order to stem the downturn, Pelletier argues the government needs to provide every person with a basic level of security.

“We don't need any more violent liberalism where it's every man for himself; what we need now is a shock of solidarity,” he says.

For Pelletier, the popular demand for change could radicalise politics if left unanswered. 

“The public is increasingly disenchanted, wary about police violence during demonstrations and convinced that Europe cannot help. At this moment in time, the stage is ripe for a Marine Le Pen victory,” he said.

Lessons learned

However, the uncertainty unleashed by the pandemic makes that prospect unlikely for political consultant Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet.

“People will be coming fresh out of a difficult situation and jumping into the unknown. Le Pen would be another scare they may want to spare themselves,” he told RFI.

But that doesn't mean the public will rally behind Macron and his pledge for a new social model. 

“What we see in the French population is a shift away from collectivism towards individualism, where people are focusing on local matters and their family,” Moreau-Chevrolet says.

In France as elsewhere, the pandemic has held up an unflattering mirror to a society where low-paid workers have shouldered an unfair burden and lockdown measures have been impossible to impose on people who have no homes or can't bear to stay in one that is run-down.

What's also new is that people have come to rely less on the president, says Moreau-Chevrolet – notably because of the state's lack of preparedness in stocking masks.

“They lied about the safety of wearing masks, telling us they weren't necessary and then made a u-turn. It would have just been simple to say 'we made a mistake, there are not enough masks'.”

No party mood

The challenges facing Macron, compounded with the surging popularity of his prime minister, combine to make the third-year anniversary of his arrival in power on Thursday bittersweet.

Emmanuel Dupuy, of the Institute for Prospective and Security Studies, reckons the French leader will use this time of crisis to increase the central government's power.

“That would be an unwise move and many mayors reject the idea,” he tells RFI. “They want to have a say in how the lockdown is phased out in their territories, not be left out.”

Asked about his prediction for French society once the lockdown ends, Dupuy says that home-schooling and remote-working would probably become more prevalent.

“Everyone from unions, parents to students have realised that the education system needs to provide more access to digital learning.”

The old way of doing things, he says, is no longer an option. 

Love of Europe

“The fact that our internet networks have been able to withstand the heavy traffic of numerous connections at once, also shows that we should look towards achieving digital independence,” Dupuy says, welcoming a government decision to turn down a coronavirus tracking app by Google and Apple.

Still, the future of the country like that of its president remains uncertain.

Moreau-Chevrolet says that a victory for Macron in 2022 for now seems unlikely, partly because the public still finds it hard to relate to him.

“He has tried to play every role – from Jacques Chirac, Winston Churchill to Charles De Gaulle – except himself.”

On Friday, as the world prepares to mark World War II commemorations, Moreau-Chevrolet predicts the president will move away from his Churchillian "we're at war" stance to strike an optimistic tone that "we will get through it".

“He could use the 8 May to celebrate Europe, which he's always stood by,” he says.

Macron on Sunday announced that France would keep its borders with the Schenghen area open, defying calls for a ban.

“He is adamant that we will get through this crisis as Europeans,” says Moreau-Chevrolet. “In order to gain any political leverage, he must first make Europe popular in the eyes of the French."

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