On the surface, tighter borders and export restrictions may look like a coup for right-wing populism. But countries like France are already moving leftward—and they won't be the lastby Cécile Guerin / March 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
“We are at war—a sanitary war for sure. We are not fighting an army, or another nation. But the enemy is here, invisible, elusive, advancing. And it requires everyone’s mobilisation.” These were the martial words President Macron delivered to the nation in a prime-time televised address on 16th March in response to the growing crisis of coronavirus. A record 35 million viewers listened in.
In his speech, Macron announced a raft of drastic measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus in France. Following Italy, the president effectively imposed a lockdown on the country, while shying away from using the word (he spoke of “war” six times instead). For two weeks, French people are requested not to go out, except for urgent reasons such as grocery shopping, to do essential work and for medical visits.
The government has enlisted 100,000 police staff to enforce the measures, with fines of up to 135 euros for violations. Meanwhile, the second round of France’s mayoral actions has been postponed.
The country looked as if it was at war yesterday, the streets of major cities eerily silent, and these exceptional measures—unseen in peacetime—have turned a president dogged by unpopularity and protest into a war leader.
An unprecedented shift
Seen from France, the coronavirus lockdown looks unprecedented. It has not only transformed French cities, but it also seems to have ushered in a new political time, and a shift towards strong state intervention.
“The nation will support its children,” Macron asserted in Monday’s speech. The president shelved his controversial pension plan reforms and announced a 300-billion-euro loan package for businesses, alongside a freeze on rent and utility bills for small companies. Unemployment benefits have been extended, and hotels and taxis requisitioned to support medical staff. Doctors and nurses will have access to free childcare while they tend to the sick.
This strong state intervention, made necessary by the challenge of fighting a fast-advancing pandemic, marks a radical shift from the free-market liberalism which Macron’s opponents have reviled him for.
The new normal?
Whether Macron’s response to the crisis will reconcile the nation with its president in the long run remains uncertain, but there are signs that the government has found renewed support among the French public. A Harris Interactive poll published today showed that 76 per cent of French voters found Macron “convincing.” A few days ago, nearly 60 per cent of people trusted the government to contain the epidemic.
Perhaps more importantly, Macron has signalled that there would be not going “back to normal” after coronavirus. On 12th March speech, he called on the nation to “question the economic model” which has prevailed for decades.
In the last few days, some commentators have pointed out that the epidemic is favouring the world’s nationalist strongmen. After all, liberal democracies such as France and Germany have started closing borders, imposing travel bans, and restricting exports—a seeming vindication of right-wing populists.
What the right gets wrong
However, the crisis has also exposed the mismanagement of right-wing populist governments.
In Italy, the Lega Nord-led nationalist coalition that runs the Lombardy region has failed to contain the outbreak. For all of Donald Trump’s initial denial of the crisis and talk of a “Democratic hoax,” the virus is spreading fast in the US, and has left the administration scrambling for testing options.
The coronavirus emergency has not only highlighted the need for international solidarity (so far, too often lacking in this crisis) but also for state intervention and renewed investment in essential services, foremost among them healthcare.
This arguably favours those who believe in strong government, and could lead to a revival of nationalist governments. It could also force liberal democracies in Europe to reinvent their social model.
A forced rethink
Across the world, coronavirus is forcing governments and individuals to rethink the way they operate.
After years of budget cuts, and as the prospect of a global recession become more real, renewed state investment and protection measures for vulnerable citizens are needed in addition to rescue packages.
Spain’s socialist-led coalition government has invested 600 million euros to help vulnerable people and is taking control of private hospitals to fight the virus.
The UK’s response
As Italy, Spain, France and now others are going into lockdown, the UK has attracted criticism for its delayed response to the crisis.
While chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a 330-billion-pound emergency rescue package for businesses, many uncertainties remain, including what provisions will be made for UK workers who could be most severely impacted, including freelancers and people working zero-hour contracts.
No less than The Spectator has called for the implementation of traditionally left-wing economic measures to tackle this and other problems.
As the French example has shown, coronavirus will soon force more European governments to wage a sanitary war. As we enter unchartered territory, one thing is uncertain: business as usual will not do.