Coronavirus Brings Out the Worst In France

The London Times reports from France. Even if we discount a bit for the fact that the British have often taken a jaundiced view of the French, the report is troubling:

The wartime appetite for la délation — reporting wrongdoers to the authorities — has reappeared. In country towns, people are denouncing neighbours to the gendarmerie for breaching le confinement and leaving their homes too often. …

Tempers are fraying in supermarkets, with unsmiling shoppers in the Paris suburbs treating others with suspicion. Angry locals in coastal areas are seething over the 400,000 Parisians who are estimated to have fled the capital to spend the lockdown in their holiday homes. Some have been refused service and Parisian cars have been vandalised in Brittany and the southwest.

That’s bad, and I don’t think we have seen anything like it in the U.S. This is worse:

Nurses are being threatened by people who see them as carriers of infection.

Lots of old prejudices are bubbling to the surface:

Conspiracy theories, long popular in France and a fixture of the yellow vest movement, blame the capitalist elite and also Jewish people for starting the epidemic or encouraging it. Many of the claims, shared millions of times on social media, talk of a “military virus” deliberately spread with the aim, variously, of boosting drug company profits, killing the elderly or delivering the country into the hands of multi-nationals or the secret “illuminati”.

One popular belief is that the virus was invented by the Paris Institut Pasteur.

We have our nutters too, of course, but I am not aware of such theories gaining credence here.

The Times says that both left-wing and right-wing politicians are demagoguing the COVID-19 epidemic, while centrists are more or less paralyzed. President Macron is trying to catch up:

Attempting to reassure the country, Mr Macron no longer disguises his anger over the populists and the “self-proclaimed experts” who are attacking his handling of the crisis and undermining the unity that he is preaching. Unpopular before the crisis began, he enjoyed a surge of public support at the outset but only 44 per cent now say he has responded well; an 11-point drop over a month.

The virus’s impact on French political attitudes has been, from my perspective, mostly appalling:

A big majority of the country wants a more powerful protective state to emerge from the crisis. More than 70 per cent want the state to curb capitalism and nationalise key sectors, according to a Viavoice poll for today’s Libération newspaper. A similar reflex led Charles de Gaulle to nationalise big industries after the German occupation. Over half the country wants to impose tight curbs on foreign goods, whether from Europe or beyond, the poll found.

I can’t explain what “curbing capitalism” has to do with the COVID-19 virus. The predominant French reaction seems to be, “The government is corrupt, it lies about everything and betrays its citizens, let’s give it more power!”

In tune with the public, Mr Macron proclaimed this week that the pandemic has “changed the world” and signalled the return of the protective state in the face of globalisation. “We must produce more in France and reduce our dependence” on imported goods, he said. In his declaration of war against the virus on March 12, he promised a break with the past. “There are goods and services that must be placed beyond the laws of the market place.”

Notice he is talking about producing in France, not the EU. The coronavirus might bring about the demise of the European Union, or at least its diminution–if so, one of its few happy effects.

Mr Macron’s new gospel marks a U-turn from the liberal pro-market doctrines that won him the election: his aides are already signalling that reconstruction after this war effort means the end of the programme of pro-market reforms that he waged against public resistance since 2017.

Freedom is fragile. When people are frightened, it tends to be the first casualty.