On Monday, France began to gradually lift its two-month nation-wide strict lockdown. One might ask whether the country is really ready for opening-up, as it accounts for 177,547 infected with the highly contagious disease as well as 26,646 COVID-related deaths.
The French government's decision to ease restrictions is fraught with certain risks as the country is not well-equipped for curbing the pandemic, argues Karel Vereycken, vice-president of Solidarite & Progres, a political party founded by "left Gaullist" Jacques Cheminade. According to him, Paris should not pin its hopes on the European Union's assistance as the bloc has proven its inefficiency in tackling the COVID-19 outbreak.
Sputnik: Is the country ready to open-up? What's your take on the Macron government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Karel Vereycken: According to a recent poll, only 34 percent of all Frenchmen consider that their government was adequately rising to the challenge of the pandemic, while that proportion is much higher in the UK (63 percent), Germany (60 percent) and Italy (50 percent). Only in Spain (32 percent), are citizens more critical than in France.
The reason is twofold. The pandemic got French citizens to discover with horror, that over two last decades, their public sector, and their health system in particular, formerly an example and source of inspiration for the entire world, has been severely hollowed out:
· First, by the EU, which called 36 times on EU member states to cut spending on health with “reforms” resulting in the shutdown of hospital capacity and medical research;
· Second, by a neo-liberal ideology, which, in the name of financial efficiency pretended that sovereign nation states could abandon without risk all forms of health and food security.
The “outsourcing” of the physical production (81% of all active substances of medical drugs), “just-in-time” and “zero inventory” became the new religion. Globalisation, thanks to low energy prices for transport, and physical production chains did the rest. Today, you require 30 nations to produce the totality of the parts needed to construct one single car, and over 50 to produce a single airplane. If the production of one crucial part is suspended in one country, the entire chain grinds to a halt.
For this reason, in 2000, strategic reserves of masks in France were not renewed. In case of a pandemic, it was said, “we just go out buy some in China!” The possibility that China itself could become the epicenter of such a pandemic and that all other countries over the world would also call on China for masks or ventilators at the same time, was brushed away as “highly improbable”. Several reports, warning the French state and executive, against the very likely emergence of a new virus, were put aside and not taken seriously.
As a result, France, unprotected and in a state of denial, immediately ran into shortages of crucial medical equipment. Rather than saying so and mobilising full scale to bolster national production, it was decided to pretend “we were ready”. Policies and communication were dictated by shortages, not by real needs to face the scientific reality. Since no masks were available, they were declared useless. Since no tests were available, they were declared inefficient. Today people have a hard time believing anything they're told.
Major dissent among the various executives (Elysée, Matignon, Bourbon, Brienne, Quai d’Orsay, etc.) added to this feeling. Initially, after being briefed by the Scientific Advisory Board, President Macron wanted to delay the municipal elections. After consulting officials of both his own ranks and the opposition, besides Jacques Cheminade, who acted as a real whistle blower in this occasion, all the major political parties forced the president to proceed with the first round of municipal elections, putting their political opportunism before that of the national interest. After participants got infected and voter turnout was very low (44.66%), 2,700 candidates and participants filed legal procedures to contest their distorted results.
As a result, France’s pandemic response isn’t a “strict confinement” at all, but a cocktail of some efficient and many insufficient half-measures resulting from “consensus” elite politics. While it is too early to conclude, the overall result risks being inefficient and a drag on over time, and therefore more costly.
Today’s “opening-up” will only bring France back to the challenges it has refused to tackle so far but which have proven the key to the success of South-Korea, China, Greece or Costa Rica:
· test, test, test;
· identify and isolate, in good and humane conditions, with the help of “citizen brigades”, all individuals, with or without symptoms, that are contagious;
· temporarily, shut down all forms of public transportation (including the Paris metro), the proven key vector of transmission used by the virus;
· relocate and boost the production of vital medical drugs, equipment and protective gear;
· mobilise international productive equipment to equip nations of the southern hemisphere, especially Africa to be ready to fight the pandemic.
These are the “modern” tools to cope with the pandemic which have not really been deployed by the French government. Any government, refusing to use them, for financial reasons or out of ideology or the type of electoral shortsightedness seen in the US, will face increasingly more victims and end up returning to methods from the “Middle Ages” such as lock-down and confinement.
Worse, “opening-up” in the current conditions, without the tests, without the masks, without the thermometers, will allow thousands of infected persons (“virus bombs”), mostly unwillingly, to spread the virus and its deadly toll.
Sputnik: What impact has the pandemic had on the country's economy? Will Paris revise its economic policies amid the pandemic? What is likely to change?
Karel Vereycken: In March Macron said he would re-assess France’s economic policies, most certainly “after” the pandemic crisis. French Economics Minister Bruno Le Maire has called on the French car industry to relocate production sites on French territory. Of course, outsourcing was often motivated by cheap labor costs abroad but also lower (and therefore less costly) environmental norms. Helping the car industry survive, said Le Maire, is crucial, and state aid is said to be conditioned by their willingness to relocate and become “greener”.
Sputnik: On 8 May, France proposed that the European Commission issue bonds to finance a recovery fund for the European Union worth 1-2% of gross national income per year (€150-300 billion) in 2021-23. What's your take about this strategy spearheaded by the Macron government? What are the chances of the EC endorsing the plan? Can it help reduce the COVID-related recession?
Karel Vereycken: If Europe was believed to be nice liquor, one could say that today, “The spirit is out of the booze”. Italy got more help, in terms of medical teams and equipment, from China, Russia and Cuba than from Brussels, Berlin and Paris.
The French call for such a recovery fund was only an effort to pretend the May 5 ruling of the Karlsruhe court, which reminds us that national law can, in certain conditions, overrule European law, never happened. In reality, call it pandemic or euro bonds, having the EU (which has no real legal personality and no real central bank) emit such bonds would imply a form of “debt sharing” which only is possible inside a single country.
A real modern Europe, not as some supranational utopia, but in the form of a free cooperation among sovereign nation states sharing a community of destiny, was proposed in November 1961 under the form of the Fouchet Plan. It was rejected by France’s partners, mainly by the British allied Netherlands. A form of “mini-Fouchet Plan” was nevertheless attempted with the 1963 Elysée Treaty between France and Germany, a treaty (outside NATO) that other countries were called to join. However, under pressure from the US state department, the German Bundestag refused to ratify the original version. As a result, the occasion to construct a political union was missed. Building a new Europe today, would require returning to the still valid principles of these treaties and enact them.
As the crisis has shown, the current EU, when it comes to taking care of its people, is absent, has no empathy and doesn’t exist in service of real people. But before organizing relations among states, already each of them must reinstate their own will to exist!
The good news is that the world discovers that money “is only paper”. Contrary to what Christine Lagarde says, debt canceling and debt rescheduling can be worked out during a summit encounter among the big four (China, Russia, India and the US) and those joining them. Full lockdown over “Ponziland”! All speculative bubbles should be told "game over". Printing currency is only allowed for real productive investment, gaining time remaining a good, but secondary reason. Barter agreements such as those between Russia and China, taking energy, health and food out of the speculative circuits, are the key to avoid the food riots resulting from the collapse of energy prices and the lock-down in countries excessively dependent on the “informal” economy. The worst would be to go back to “normal” (speculation)!
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.