France: Behind the coronavirus health crisis, a crisis of the capitalist way of organising society

President Macron (Photo: Wikimedia)

“We are at war!” President Emmanuel Macron declared in his speech to the nation on the evening of Monday, 16 March. It came just one day after less than a third of voters turned out in the first round of local elections which had gone ahead in the context of poor ratings for him and his party, En Marche.

Macron announced an emergency rescue package of €45 billion, the details of which were spelt out by the Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, the next day. The president also announced severe restrictions of movement, with soldiers on the streets, and the promise of ‘further measures’ up to and including €300bn in bank loans to his friends in business, and bail-outs or even state nationalisation to stricken industries.

Below is a statement on the crisis by Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI France).

The ‘Covid-19’ epidemic, now called a pandemic, which began in early December 2019 in the city of Wuhan, central China, before spreading around the world, has sent governments, financial markets and the whole of capitalism into a huge panic.

Today there are 167,000 people infected worldwide and more than 6,500 people have died. In France, there are more than 6,600 proven cases, including 300 serious cases in intensive care, and 148 deaths by the morning of 17 March. According to many medical and scientific sources, these figures are largely underestimated, since there are not enough tests carried out on a large scale. What is important is the very rapid rate at which the disease is spreading. The lack of screening prevents it from being able to detect it in advance and forces the use mathematical models that have to take into account the worst-case scenarios, such as the infection of half the population in France.

What is worrying is not so much the virus, but the chaos it creates. This virus is certainly not a normal flu but it is a relatively non-lethal virus. During the SARS epidemic in 2003, 10% of those infected died. With this new coronavirus, the clinical estimate is 1% to 2%. If an epidemic is to be approached seriously, it should be possible to approach it calmly and without generating panic and chaos as some of the media have initially done (which may also make the situation worse). The inability of governments to manage such an epidemic calmly and effectively is reminiscent of heat waves or natural disasters. However, unlike a typhoon or tsunami, the Covid epidemic19 was predictable. Following the SARS epidemic, the scientific community warned of the need to know more about these viruses in order to anticipate future epidemics. Yet most public basic research projects on these issues lost their funding because they were not immediately profitable.

This is not just a health crisis, it is a crisis of a political and economic system, where we see that the capitalist organisation of society has made it impossible to anticipate and respond coherently.

Badly mismanaged

For more than a year now, hospital staff have been fighting to demand more resources, recruitment, an end to the cutting of services etc. They demanded more resources for emergency services too, even insisting that the health system was in such a state that it would not be able to cope with a disaster, as the emergency departments were already often overstretched. French hospitals have lost nearly 18,000 beds in six years, or 5.3%. When the peak is reached, there will not be enough beds (this is currently the case in Italy and there are only 5,000 resuscitation beds in France) and even if confining the population is now the only method of slowing down the virus, it is an insufficient response.

We are faced with all the absurdities of capitalism: the means of production are extraordinarily well developed, but since only profit counts, we find ourselves short of masks, medicines, and of course hospital staff.

Crisis in public services and its consequences

Macron’s policies have compounded those of previous governments. The first recommendations mainly reflected the lack of human and technical resources in different areas. In the absence of medicines, the main common sense measure was to limit contact and take drastic precautions on a large scale. With this crisis, clean-ups began in the neighbourhoods, with buses, the underground, stations, stadiums but the resources of the local authorities were so run down that this quickly proved impossible to maintain for the long-term. And they failed to take immediate and effective health measures that would have exposed the collapse of the public services.

The delay was also due to the fear of the capitalists, who matter so much to Macron, of the negative impact on growth, and therefore on profits if the economy was brought to a halt. And, as always, by backing down on decisions, they created an even more serious crisis. The CAC 40 (top companies) lost more than 30% in just a few weeks. We may already be on the verge of a major stock market and economic crisis, and the capitalists no longer have any means of correcting it, since the central banks already have very low-interest rates, even negative ones at the European Central Bank.

In his speech on 16 March, Macron reaffirmed “national solidarity” and that no one would be left behind while adding that “the state will pay”. In other words, it will still be the workers who will pay for the crisis through their taxes and social security contributions, because, of course, no multinational company will be forced to pay, even though every year they make tens of billions of euros in profits (another 80 billion euros in 2019). On the contrary, Macron announced this Monday that they will benefit from further cuts in social security contributions!

On the one hand, Macron announced very strong police and gendarmerie presence (as he did against the Gilets Jaunes), with 100 000 police on the streets, to show a strong hand. On the other hand, Macron’s government announced a rescue package of €45 billion to “help” the economy. And the industry minister is talking about another €300 billion used to plan, and possible partial “nationalisation”. It shows that they, in fact, do not know in which direction events will go, even if some economists are warning about an economic recession that could see a fall of 7% of GDP.

We have no confidence in the policy Macron intends to pursue around this crisis. They announce the suspension of the “reforms” (of pensions, unemployment benefits etc) but not their withdrawal. They are introducing distance learning courses in education and higher education. It is very likely that they will continue with this kind of arrangement, which will make it possible to cut many teaching jobs.

The crisis of capitalism

Already, hundreds of companies that have almost gone bankrupt in the face of the crisis have asked governments to release funds to support them during these “difficult times”. It is up to capitalists, shareholders and bankers, to pay for their economic and health crisis!

The first to have warned of the danger were the workers and their trade unions, exercising their right to stay away despite pressure from employers. No worker should feel in danger. We do not trust Macron’s speeches. In 2003, when a heatwave in France killed nearly 15,000 elderly people, when the government had gone on its summer holiday, its first action in the wake of the heatwave was to abolish a public holiday to supposedly contribute to national solidarity.

This crisis raises fundamental questions. Who should manage society? It is only the workers, the trade unions, who have taken this issue seriously.

Trade unions must continue to tackle this issue, informing workers of their rights, as many are already doing, and urging them to organise collectively in the face of the bosses and contradictory instructions. The management of this crisis must not be left to the employers and politicians, who in the long run only defend the interests of the capitalist class.

All workers must be able to look after their health and that of their loved ones and not be made to bear the brunt of this epidemic. But once the isolation is over, it will be necessary to organise and prepare to mobilise in order to refuse to pay for a policy that has destroyed public services and transforms health into a lucrative market for the multinationals.

There is a dire need for a political force, a new mass party of struggle against governments like Macron’s, and to fight for a policy that will benefit workers and the majority of the population. Only a society free from the dictatorship of profit, a society in which the heights of the economy are in public ownership, democratically managed by the workers and the people, will allow resources to be allocated according to need and not the profits of a few.

The coronavirus crisis reveals very clearly the urgent need to fight for socialism! Take systematic control of the treatment of affected employees in the workplace, systematic screening. We call for 100% compensation in case of partial unemployment.

  • No worker, artisan or small trader should lose his or her job or income as a result of this crisis. Any small or medium-sized enterprise in difficulty must be helped by drawing on the profits of large companies. Open the books of account so that workers and their trade unions can be in control of where the money is and where it goes.
  • Bills (water, telephone, energy, etc.) and rents must be suspended for everyone, not just businesses.
  • Nationalisation, under the control of the workers and the general public, of the entire health sector, for a public monopoly over health. Nationalisation of pharmaceutical companies, free provision of medicines and protective items.
  • A plan for the hiring of staff for hospitals, assistance to public medical homes and other health and personal assistance structures
  • Research to be 100% public, investment in basic research, the abolition of patents, and public availability of all medical research discoveries.
  • No to Macron’s attacks, suspended or forthcoming: complete withdrawal of the pension attack and that on unemployment insurance.
  • For a workers’ government! Against capitalism, for socialism!

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March 2020