How strange the change from major to minor

Fairly Major

Le confinement continue.

After 22 days of lockdown, the number of people receiving intensive care in French hospitals has been lower than the previous day for two successive days. Another tiny indicator of possible progress. The head of the French health authority, Jérôme Salomon, said there was ‘a very pale ray of sunlight’.

But. There’s always a ‘but’. Yesterday’s report: 554 had died in hospital and 433 in care and nursing homes. And if you want to be truly shaken, remember that reports on deaths in care/nursing homes are based on reports from barely half the homes.

All that means nothing at all for the duration of France’s lockdown, in place since 17 March. The Presidency informed Agence France Presse (it still happens like that) that the lockdown would be extended beyond 15 April. AFP was also authorised to inform us that, on Monday, President Macron (‘having consulted nationally and internationally’ and, doubtless, noting that the Italian lockdown has been extended to 3 May) will deliver his fourth Address to the Nation in a month.

So, as the clap de fin to Monday’s ‘public holiday’, Macron will speak at 20:02, just after the nightly clapping de 20h00.

In his dystopian novel 1984, Orwell wrote: ‘The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was … that it was impossible to avoid joining in.’ For so many of us now, the most uplifting thing about our Two Minutes Applause is it’s impossible not to want to join in. Every night. 8pm. Neighbours over and down the road. A bit of slightly-embarrassed waving over this near-obligatory group activity. Every day, towards the end of dinner, we applaud the health workers.

Major

Western Europe is now totally awake to the critical importance of millions of lower-paid workers. In the face of (often great) personal danger they ensure the continuation of far more than a semblance of our normal life. Those who make bread, deliver post, empty dustbins, drive lorries, deliver packages, stack shelves, sit at check-out desks and, way above them all, those who nurse the sick. The country lives thanks to them. Many others stay at home, maybe even with gardens to go into (if they haven’t bolted to country boltholes), and work online. Not an option for most of the lower-paid.

In the UK, the BBC’s major late-night current affairs programme, Newsnight, is often hosted by brilliant Emily Maitlis. In a devastating 67 seconds of public service broadcasting she destroys a ‘myth that needs debunking’ because ‘[coronavirus] is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same’. The pandemic’s effects are wholly disproportionately suffered by the lower-paid.

No country in Europe saw such anger as France since the crisis of the gilets jaunes and the dispossessed first erupted 18 months ago.Some now see the possibile resurgence of the same discontents, articulated so violently for so long.

The General Secretary of Macron’s LRM party, Guérini, spoke of his fears: ‘We must not allow the idea to grow that France is divided into two separate, distinct countries. Those required to go out to work and those who work online. Those locked-down on council estates and those with second homes. Those working for small companies and those employed by major corporations … There’s a risk that divisions between these two countries can be made worse’.

Might this be the moment for Macron to (re)discover his radical side by re-introducing a symbolically-vital Wealth Tax? Economy Minister Le Maire says that’s on no-one’s agenda. Public Accounts Minister Darmanin went off at a tangent: asked how people could contribute, he said they could donate via an online platform being established.

Thomas Piketty (rockstar economist, writer of the most purchased-unread-weighty-tomes since Hawking) asks in today’s Le Monde whether Macron and Trump are ‘ready to overturn the tax giveaways they made to the wealthy at the start of their Presidencies.’ (Answer: probably not). Piketty continues: ‘We can be certain of one thing: major political and ideological upheavals have only just begun.’ (He’s right.)

Major

The French Government is providing major financial support during the crisis, delivering on President Macron’s promise to do ‘whatever it costs’. The context? France’s deepest economic downturn since World War 2 (considerably worse than the 2008 global financial crisis effects): the economy contracted 6% between January and March. Still more pain lies ahead, with the earliest stages of déconfinement no time soon.

Last week, said Le Maire, the Government-backed loan scheme provided €20bn of Government loan guarantees [Government will support up to €300bn] to 100,000+ companies. 6.9 million employees (one third of the private sector) working in 500,000+ companies, are on ‘partial unemployment’ (state-subsidised furlough). Cost? €11bn over 3 months as workers keep their employment contracts, health benefits, holiday rights, and are paid 84% of net salary.

The Republic’s Disloyal Opposition

There’s no pretence of ‘constructive opposition’ from some. Ultra-right, hard left, and the anti-politics gilets jaunes all pursue strong anti-Government lines of attack.

The ultra-right leader of her National Rally party, Le Pen [it’s so difficult to remember to add ‘formerly the Front National’ every time; yet the words ‘National Rally’ seem to carry increased menace] continues to be given many opportunities to criticise the Government’s handling of coronavirus. She eagerly grasps them all.

Last week, interviewed by right-wing daily Le Figaro, she asked: ‘What is this national unity about? Supporting Government lies? Covering up its incompetence as it endangers the lives of those struggling in the front line against the virus?’

In an interview on Europe 1 radio 2 days ago Le Pen said she had ‘the impression Government is playing it by ear since the beginning of the crisis.’ She said she would have ‘immediately closed France’s borders to prevent the arrival of contaminated people.’ [Charming code for what should happen to The Other.]

Condemning Government for its ‘unpreparedness’, she castigated an inability to provide protective equipment to health workers, or perform sufficient tests, and for refusing to allow any Doctor to prescribe Raoult’s Magic Medicine [as lauded by Genius Doctor Emeritus Trump]. This continues to be the subject of dispute. Everyone has expertise on chloroquine’s utility against COVID-19.

Government is being hammered by ‘People’ Experts (plus a scattering of ‘Real’ Experts) who’ve successfully pushed for chloroquine’s use treating the most seriously ill in hospital. Next: extend its use so every doctor can prescribe.

Le Pen, of course, recognises there’s considerable traction in this touchstone issue.

President Macron understands there’s no going round this problem, nor even over it. He’s had to go through it.

Thursday, therefore, Macron spent (unannounced-to-the-press) three and a half hours (yes really) visiting the Marseilles hospital of climate-change-denying/test-results-cheating/prolix-research-findings-publisher* Professor Raoult, concluding with a private chat with The Magical Doctor.

Macron certainly signals he’s heard the clamour for recognition of Raoult’s unproven treatment. But is this endorsement of Raoult? A spokesperson said it’s part of Macron’s wide consultation before announcing what’s next on Monday.

[*I’m indebted to Le Monde for reporting that, at 24 March, Raoult had published 3,024 pieces of research, while most researchers ‘publish less in the course of their career than [Raoult] publishes in a few months (over 30 this year)’.]

Definitely minor

Daily life’s a bit easier … and somewhat more difficult.

Government’s Lockdown Sortie Approval smartphone document launched on Monday. Until now, each lockdown change was beset by difficulties: the website was always insufficiently prepared. This smartphone ‘Approval’ enables those with home printers to stop wasting paper printing a self-declaration before leaving home; the printer-deprived rest their, doubtless, tired hands.

Government reassuringly mentions: ‘data is exclusively kept on [your] phone or computer. The Interior Ministry collects no infrmation.’ The latter’s for laters.

As forecast (see previous post) there was an inevitable reaction to people disrespecting the rules. So with a sunny Easter weekend a-looming, Government acted.

But inefficiency emerged as Government required joggers, rollerbladers, runners, and cyclists to perform their hour’s exercise between 7pm-10am. This rule-tightening was imposed by Departmental Préfets, first in Paris (as happens in France) then outwards.

Last weekend, said the Préfets, police saw ‘increased crowds in open spaces with ideal weather for open air activities’ and had punished ‘numerous violations’. Since ‘individual physical activity’ is ‘as beneficial early morning and evening’ … here’s your new hours.

Préfets produced new Decrees. But super-badly drafted. Confused people thought walking and dog-walking were activities for early-risers and nighthawks alone. Police officers screwed up, upbraiding those taking their daily constitutional.

Certain Préfets issued a snafu-rectifying Decree: written so anyone without advanced Administrative-Decree-Interpretation qualifications couldn’t understand.

Some Préfets tweeted drawings of people indulging their preferred activity (jogging or dog-walking … no spoonerisms please) with allotted performance hours. But NOT our Préfet Brot. Unsurprising for one who signs documents thus. Diagrammatic explanations. Surely not. [I mused on including his signatory work of art here but had second thoughts. Lèse-Préfet might be a near-capital offence.]

48 hours later Brot fell in line. He tweeted drawings with the worst of them: especially useful for cyclists ‘persecuted’ wrongly for cycling without authority.

Quel bordel seems the only appropriate reaction. An expletive deleted mess.

People are watching you

Fancy denouncing a neighbour?

That’s the (unsurprising?) proposal from Easten England’s Cambridgeshire Cops. Like other police forces, they ‘urge people to use common sense’. Yet here are elements of something rather unpleasant: police producing online forms so denouncing miscreants becomes easier. #StayHomeStaySafeSpyAndRatOnYourNeighbour.

Shhhhhh. Not a word to Interior Minister Castaner.

Something Completely Different

Here’s a thoughtful (and deep) read in The Atlantic on the pandemic’s possible effects on international politics by a Brookings Institute fellow. He sums up the situation: ‘The greatest error that geopolitical analysts can make may be believing that the crisis will be over in three to four months’

For a deeply moving few minutes on how coronavirus affects a family, do listen to this interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (9 April) – listen at 1:48:35.

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