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Covid and Politics in France

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French citizen’s distrust, not only towards the executive, or the political class, but directed at the Government as a whole, is on the rise. A phenomenon that was already visible through the Yellow Vests movement, and that is now being reinforced by the handling of the COVID crisis, only a year prior to the next Presidential elections. How did COVID make things so much worse? First and foremost, the extreme verticality and lack of transparency concerning decision making throughout the crisis that was identified by the Institut Montaigne think tank in one of its reports

Over-centralized and opaque decision making

Since the beginning of the crisis, the centrality of power was greatly reaffirmed: nearly all decisions on restrictions and measures were made nation-wide, from Paris. This happened in a French Nation that was only slowly intending to decentralize some aspects of decision-making in an effort to revitalize and empower its citizens locally over the past years. 

Furthermore, decisions seemed to be emanating from a very restricted group of people. The “Defense Council”, holding weekly meetings and responsible for the implementation of the movement control orders, curfews, and so on, is composed only of the President, a faction of his Ministers and the Scientific Council. These meetings are held strictly confidential, and presented as a crisis unit, the need to take decisions quickly in order to save lives being held as ground. The issue here is, the COVID pandemic has been going on for over a year now, and crisis units can indeed be necessary in such situations, but are not meant to last this long. Furthermore, the French Parliament, National Assembly and Senate, are voicing complaints on the fact that they are being put aside on matters that greatly impact the whole of France’s population. 

Faulty communication leading to disastrous polls

The « mask affair » could be considered the government’s original sin in terms of failure and faulty communication. Indeed, at the very beginning of the pandemic, State authorities vastly communicated the fact that wearing face masks is unnecessary for the general public, may even be counter productive, as wearing a mask goes with « precise skills » that are not mastered by everyone, as Sibeth Ndiaye, then government spokesperson, stated in march 2020 on the set of BFMTV. 

Shortly after, medical authorities realize State stocks of masks were vastly insufficient, as they were subject to budget cuts over the years since 2011. This triggered a nation-wide scandal, as hospitals struggled to protect their already over-worked staff. Finally, by the time the Government managed to buy and initiate the production of masks to a certain extend, the wearing of face masks was gradually made mandatory. 

In addition to this, a blatant lack of communication strategy by the Executive on matters concerning the pandemic prevails. Also, France’s vaccination campaign suffered from a very lengthy start , especially compared to other European neighbors. These elements contribute to the disastrous polling results the government is facing today. Indeed, up to 60% of France’s population do not trust the government to deal effectively with the sanitary crisis (Odoxa survey, ordered by France Info and Le Figaro).

Attempts at redemption

Facing this generalized dissent, the Elysée has taken some initiatives to democratize this vastly criticized decision-making process. For example by randomly picking 35 public opinion representatives in order for them to voice the population’s concerns on the vaccination campaign. But after the fiasco of the citizen’s convention on climate, that left many with a suspicious and hypocritical vision of the Government, French public opinion does not seem prone to accept scarce steps in the right direction as sufficient. 

Major concessions ought to be made in order for the process to be considered more legitimate. For instance, the maintaining of the state of sanitary emergency, allowing for the Parliament to be set aside as it is currently, cannot carry on, considering the fact that it is a state meant for emergency, and does not allow for a strictly speaking democratic way of governing. Parliamentarians have already managed to negotiate the end of the state of emergency for the end of September, instead of the planned end of October. 

With the presidential elections coming up in 2022, the rise of the Rassemblement National (the far right party), and the ever growing division of the opposition, it seems like in President Macron’s best interest to lend an ear to his country’s complaints. Not necessarily meaning a lightening of sanitary measures, nor making empty promises of a soon to occur return to « normal life », but to put a stop to the tendency of emergency mechanisms becoming the norm. Even if this means slowing down the decision-making process to a certain extend, to allow for the minimum of accountability to its citizens a democratic State ought to have. 

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Sarah Rost

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