Object Lessons from France in the Current Crisis

Rarely have so many democratic liberal states shown themselves to be so apparently hapless and arbitrary at the same time.
Keywords: COVID, France, Europe, Health, EU, Infrastructure, Vaccine, Constitutional, Legal, Authoritarian, Political, Social, Electoral
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Like the rest of the world, France and Europe are critically affected in every aspect of their social and economic life by the effects of the COVD-19 epidemic and of the multiple restrictions and proliferating and at times contradictory measures adopted by governments in the name of the fight to control it. In the process political mores and structures are changing as the train of repressive decrees and legislation arouses in its trail a rising tide of contestation. More than two hundred protest marches involving hundreds of thousands of people across France have been taking place every Saturday since one month.

Rarely have so many democratic liberal states shown themselves to be so apparently hapless and arbitrary at the same time. A year and a half after the irruption of the epidemic on the world stage there is utter disagreement about what was done, what should have been done so far and what is coming down next. Legal experts point out that decrees mandating lockdowns and health passes for access to commercial spaces violate both national and EU Constitutional rights but governments have tended to lend deaf ears to such representations, instead threatening their populations with new lockdowns if they question the restrictions slapped on them.

The infrastructures built in the last two decades to support a seemingly unending economic boom are turning out to be hardly suited to the transformed situation in which uncertainty about the sanitary future and collective security makes big corporations and people shy away from huge office buildings and densely populated residential complexes in this age of telework, virtual interaction and social distancing. Much of the multi-million square corporate space recently developed in Paris and its surroundings lies empty for the foreseeable future and many of the innumerable cafes, restaurants and hangout places are going bankrupt due to the paucity of patrons.

The electoral system at least in France is going through a crisis too. In the last nationwide polls for all local and regional administrative bodies only one third of the electorate cast a ballot and out of that minority only ten per cent voted for candidates nominated by President Macron’s party which means that in effect only three per cent of the French support his government. The imposition of health passes and other regulations (for which only one third of the Presidential Party’s deputies voted in Parliament) makes many conclude that the system is evolving towards a form of technocratic authoritarianism in a climate of rising poverty and economic inequality.

Since the Government supplied financial assistance to the people who could not work and businesses which could not function for more than a year due to successive lockdowns and curfews, it now feels entitled to control much more tightly the existence of all by falling into the trap of many outwardly liberal regimes which ‘forbid everything that is not compulsory’. Official claims that the COVID crisis can be smothered through de facto compulsory vaccination ring increasingly hollow since the number of cases is rising again. Fully vaccinated people are being told to stay masked, keep social distance and wait for a third shot by September after being repeatedly assured earlier that they would return to normal life once fully immunised. Many highly vaccinated countries are sinking back into the covid crisis due to burgeoning new variants and many of Europe’s policies look increasingly out-of-step with reality.

Since the end of 2020, after signing usually opaque contracts with pharmaceutical giants most western governments went in lockstep to discredit the AstraZeneca vaccine, by far the cheapest amongst the ‘western’ brands and gradually imposed the expensive US RNA messenger experimental jabs developed by Pfizer and Moderna while rejecting several rival manufacturers from other parts of the world. In France the promotion of the Pfizer vaccine is obsessive in all media 24/7, supported by slick ads which show people being injected on a background of US Pop Music as if to play on the popular prestige of American consumer products. The President of the Republic himself has taken to Tiktok and other youth-oriented platforms to advocate for the Pharma giant which he describes as the sole hope for the country, including all children aged twelve and above, a controversial assertion medically speaking.

Some cynics point out that Pfizer is known for its generosity to political parties and its related influence in the circles of power, that President Lopez Obrador of Mexico publicly warned against. The French Government acknowledges that it does everything to make the lives of the unvaccinated miserable in order to compel them to get jabbed even though no one can guarantee the safety of what is still a scientifically unapproved formula going through Phase Three testing. Fining people for not having health passes even in open air spaces and on beaches and making tests payable and expensive are perceived as forms of harassment designed to force vaccination on hesitant citizens,

The fact that several eminent specialists in the fields of immunology and even more physicians are very cautious or even negative about the short and possible long term side effects of the MRNA vaccines makes the official campaign sound suspiciously offkey in a situation of widespread public confusion and distrust towards political powers and corporate oligarchies. More disturbingly, in France at least the dissenting scientific opinions and reports on mRNA vaccine safety are largely ignored and even censored which does nothing to increase public trust and raises misgivings about the government’s peremptory rejection of inexpensive medical remedies such as Ivermectin and anti-inflammatories.

The health-related situation is somehow tied with the socio-economic predicament of most states in the continent. In France the public deficit is now far above 100% of the GDP and is worsening year after year. The huge outlays required to support a large part of the population during the last year will inevitably bring in higher taxes, reduced social benefits and a general impoverishment while inflation raises its head. The ability to borrow at low rates for leading nations of the EU like France is due in great measure to Germany’s support through the European Central Bank but Berlin, which has its own mounting internal problems has ominously hinted that it will soon stop purchasing the bonds of over indebted states, thereby plunging some of its southern and western neighbours into further hardship.

An ad hoc commission in Brussels is reportedly working on a ‘Plan B’ in case the French economy goes into a tailspin. That might require the country to leave the Eurozone by mutual agreement in order to free itself from the iron yoke of the common currency and go back to a national monetary unit, tied in some loose way to the Euro but capable of independent devaluation. Such a move would inevitably result in ‘weak’ economies such as Spain and Italy doing the same and reduce the Germano-centric Eurozone to the stronger northern members, geopolitically it would imply the defeat of the original ‘Napoleonic’ vision behind the Gaullist Common Market to the benefit of the traditional ‘Reich’ that dominated Europe until its gradual disintegration from the Renaissance onwards. The post-Euro states would then navigate between Britain and the Central European Trade Block as they did for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such a scenario would certainly meet the long-standing desires of the British, American and Russian leaderships. It won’t be a direct result of the current health crisis which merely accelerated the downward trend in the European Union’s trajectory.

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Côme Carpentier de Gourdon

Côme Carpentier de Gourdon is Distinguished Fellow with India Foundation and is also the Convener of the Editorial Board of the WORLD AFFAIRS JOURNAL. He is an associate of the International Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IISES), Vienna, Austria. Côme Carpentier is an author of various books and several articles, essays and papers

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