• RJ Smith

How Long Can Macron’s Rhetoric Hold?

With 14,000 casualties recorded so far, the coronavirus has claimed more lives in France than all but three nations. And the government’s response has been as aggressive as the virus itself.

“We are at war,” Macron intoned during his first two televised addresses to the nation.

The rhetoric is working. Hitherto plagued by the Gilets Jaunes movement and accusations of being out of touch, the French President is now enjoying his highest approval ratings in two years.

But on review of the nation’s preparedness for the crisis, and with the effects of the response coming into sharper focus by the day, one wonders how long the tactic can work.

Last Monday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said before a digitally empanelled Senate that the country is likely to experience its worst recession by far since Second World War. On Wednesday the country officially entered that recession, after recording its second consecutive trimester of negative growth.

With high unemployment, a bloated public sector and high public debt, the fundamentals of the French economy were bad before the virus arrived. And now that the economy has ground to a halt the outlook has gone from bleak to catastrophic.

Most businesses in the country’s vital tourism, luxury and manufacturing sectors have suspended operations. Over six million full-time employees are in partial chomage, a generous allowance the state pays to laid off workers.

The economic figures are startling. And the public health statistics do not bode well for Macron either.

Germany had a stock of 25,000 ventilators before the current crisis began. France had 5000. Italy has tested 1.5 per cent of its population for the virus to date. France has tested less than half of that figure and lags behind the United States on a per capita basis.

On the social front, an emergency law rushed through the parliament brought a confinement into effect on March 17. Leaving home except to exercise or collect essential items is now prohibited, and all citizens must carry a signed document stating their excuse for being in public.

On March 24 the laws were tightened. Exercise is now limited to a maximum of one hour per day between 10am and 7pm, and residents are confined to a one-kilometre radius of their homes should they go out for this purpose. Yesterday the measures were extended for another four weeks.

A law, of course, is only as effective as its enforcement. And in France this has been robust to say the least. Police here are highly visible, resembling more a troupe of sentry guards—verifying papers, manning check points—than the thin blue line between order and chaos. A staggering half a million fines have been issued under the emergency laws to date according to Le Figaro.

Convinced they are at war, the French values of égalité and fraternité are as strong as ever. Liberté, however—the ethos that c’est interdit d’interdire (it’s prohibited to prohibit)—has become yet another casualty of the coronavirus.

Parks are closed. Bistros are shuttered. The old revolutionary hotbed of Paris is now a sombre windswept ghost town. And all of this has been done with the approval of the general public.

This in no small measure due to the President’s skilful messaging. Nothing rallies support like a steady hand in wartime.

The danger for Macron is that his chers compatriots as he refers to them in his highly rehearsed addresses realise that the battle still to come will eclipse the one they are currently engaged in. And its severity will not be despite the way the country has been managed but because of it.

The rhetoric of war may yet prove apt, but for all the wrong reasons. One word in particular comes to mind—an English one—mayday. It comes from a phrase no self-respecting Frenchman would ever utter during peacetime—m’aidez—help me.


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