What is happening in France?
Some measures are taken at local level only, curfews from 6 pm in some urban areas to force the recalcitrant indoors.
But let’s start with Macron’s first speech to the nation in mid-March.
He addressed ‘his dear compatriots’ with his usual pomp and ceremony, on his own, seated at a splendid desk in the gold office of the Elysée Palace, looking intensely serious, a French flag and a European flag are at his side. At the end, the Marseillaise is played.
He made practical announcements, such as the extension of the ‘winter truce’ (when tenants cannot be evicted) for 2 months, and a similar truce on disconnection to gas or electricity in case of non-payment, also until end of May. He closed schools from the 16th March, keeping a childcare service for essential workers.
When it comes to employees, the French leader announced the implementation of an “exceptional and massive mechanism of partial unemployment”. For companies, it will be possible to postpone “without justification, without formality, without penalty [the] payment of contributions and taxes due in March”. The State will pay 70% of salary for the newly unemployed, 100% for those on minimum wage.
He maintained that the municipal elections for Sunday 15th March will go ahead. (The second round on 22nd March did not go ahead.) He was criticised for doing this, as today those who manned the polling stations and counted the votes have fallen ill in significant numbers.
He went beyond practical measures to talk in general about the modern economic model.
After urging the nation to “question the development model in which our world has been engaged for decades”, Macron recalled that “free health care, with no conditions of income, career or profession, our welfare state are not costs or burdens but precious goods. They are indispensable assets when fate strikes, which this pandemic reveals”.
This is in a way typical of Macron, known by his catch phrase ‘en même temps’ [at the same time] or ‘on the one hand, and on the other’. He is capable of maintaining one thing and its opposite at the same time. His actions have followed one direction, that is, the liberal ‘development model’.
Sarkozy also made pronouncements against the liberal system, at the time of the 2008 crisis. He said famously:
“Self-regulation to solve all problems, that’s over. Laissez-faire, that’s over. The idea that the market can do no wrong, that’s over.” It was not the least bit over.
When states saved the banks everything went back to what passes for normal. Macron was elected to further ‘modernise’ France, i.e. dismantle its social model and privatise.
Influence on Boris Johnson?
The newspaper Liberation claimed that Boris Johnson finally closed schools, pubs and restaurants under pressure from Macron, who threatened to close French borders to UK travellers otherwise. This is also reported in the Financial Times. It is not confirmed by either party, but chimes with what the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in an interview on Tuesday 17th March said:
“If neighbouring countries, Britain for instance, stayed for too long in a situation without taking these measures, then we would find it hard to accept on our soil British nationals who would have been moving freely in their own country.”
Banning short selling
Short-selling involves borrowing shares to sell them, effectively betting their price will fall so they can be bought back cheaper, allowing the investor to pocket the difference.
Short selling was one of the causes of the 2008 crisis. People defaulted on mortgages, causing losses. Financial experts betted on this default on a massive scale, (so-called short selling) and the pay outs on the successful bets compounded the crisis into something unmanageable.
In the present crisis, firms are losing money. It is still possible to place bets on them falling further and make astronomical profits when they do fall further. French firms are under attack in this way.
Faced with a further fall in prices on Monday (16 March), the Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF), the French market watchdog, banned short selling for 24 hours on 92 stocks, a measure that may be extended to prevent investors from betting on a decline in stock value.
“Given the significant price declines that have occurred in recent days on the financial markets, the AMF has decided to take an emergency measure,” the AMF announced in a press release. These suspensive measures could be extended for up to one month, according to Bruno Le Maire, the economy and finance minister.
“I will not hesitate to use all the instruments at my disposal for companies attacked on the markets,” said Le Maire, adding that “this may involve capitalisation or equity investment. I can even use the term nationalisation if necessary”.
Confinement shows up social inequalities sharply. Who has large airy flats in a leafy neighbourhood? Who can still earn money by working from home? Who depends on charity (food banks in England, soup kitchens in France) when charity stops? England has much greater inequality. For example in England, 4 million households pay their gas and electricity with pre-paid cards, topped up in non-food shops subject to closures. In France that system does not exist, everyone has the same type of payment account.
English children will miss their free school meals; France does not have free school meals, instead the cost of school meals is means tested, so everyone is in the same boat. (In England, in some areas, children with free school meals may not get the same meals as those who pay.)
Confinement also shows up the Western model, where more people live on their own due to high rates of divorce and the breakup of family ties. Self-help books and the women pages of the Guardian talk about ‘Co-dependency’ as a condition that afflict the inadequate and needs sorting out. It wasn’t clearly spelt out what it meant, presumably that life was unpleasant in the absence of loved ones. The implication was that a modern healthy person should be able to live on their own, with take it or leave it relationships.
Francois Ruffin is a France Insoumise (FI) MP, and also a journalist publishing a quarterly paper with stories of everyday hard life. Now confined, he broadcasts from his kitchen, interviewing a variety of contributors.
Of WW2 the English remember that ‘they stood alone’, and won the war, more or less single handed. The French remember the programme of the National Council of the Resistance, which founded the French social model. Everyone refers to it, including people like Sarkozy, when it’s time to rally the troops. It is in people’s minds again in the present circumstances. Since Macron says we are at war, Ruffin and others say yes, we are, and like the last big war, things won’t be the same again once it’s over.
He wants to use confinement time to formulate a programme for change for after the crisis and he is asking for examples of key demands. He seems to think that he needs to do this by himself, with help from listeners and his 100, 000 subscribers online.
It is remarkable that he does not turn to his party (Melenchon’s La France Insoumise) for inspiration, in fact he ignores it totally.
It must be admitted that Mélenchon is not inspiring. His group of 17 MPs did not vote for the Macron plan for action in the crisis because according to them it does not go far enough. Refusing publicly to join the national effort is not a good idea, and Mélenchon’s speech was a confusing mixture of practical solutions and obscure sentiments. He demanded the requisitioning of 1,000 textiles factories to make masks, and of other factories to make respirators, which sounds a probably constructive suggestion. But he concluded his speech in words not designed to be understood by the masses, or by anyone apart from himself:
“Neither now, nor never, do we forget that our lives are our works as Prometheus enabled it. We fight no other enemy than the mistakes and the excesses of a lifestyle.”
Ruffin doesn’t seem to have much of an idea himself. His first suggestion for a key demand is ‘Ban advertising’. A listener made a brilliant suggestion: “Retirement at 60 for all workers who turned out to be indispensable after all (retail, health, care workers). Another listener suggested banning speculation, defined as bets on stocks rising or falling.
The Communist Party group joined the FI in not voting government measures, because it wasn’t clear that a proposed extension to the working week could not be interpreted as permanent. The class struggle does not stop. The unions protested against part of the government measures; the proposal was that employers could impose a one week paid holiday starting now. Thanks to union protest, employers will now have to negotiate a date.
At least the opposition, unlike in England, has not been spending its time discussing the modern equivalent of the sex of the angels. Froggy will continue on the topic of ‘the class struggle goes on’ and report of the progress of Ruffin’s programme for the future.