The first cases of Covid-19 appeared in France, in late January, but the government waited until March to take the epidemic seriously, after it had already been declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 11 March.
The week before, as the epidemic was spreading rapidly, President Emmanuel Macron was filmed going to the theatre with his wife and saying: “Life goes on. There’s no reason, except for vulnerable people, to change our going-out habits”. In the same vein, the ministry of Education firmly excluded school closures, and the new Health minister explained that there was no use in testing everyone and that masks were not necessary.
Now, Macron has declared the country “at war” in his TV address, when he announced the lock-down, as the government has been trying to catch up with its gross mismanagement of the crisis. The death toll has surpassed the 10,000 mark and scientists say the peak has probably not been reached yet, but health services and hospitals are already overwhelmed. The delay in taking serious measures to tackle the epidemic, namely widespread testings and mask distributions, has worsened the crisis. Above all, the crisis exposes how decades of neoliberal attacks have ravaged key sectors like health, education, distribution and research. The privatisation and commodifying of essential services, led by capitalist greed, has weakened the ability of the state to react in emergency situations.
A “health coup”!
Class interests are being crudely exposed as the government has declared a “health state of emergency”. Through a set of ordinances (which enable the government to do without the parliament’s consent), they have proved that they are more worried about capitalists’ health than workers. On the one hand, they are overwhelmed by the situation, but on the other hand, they opportunistically use the crisis to enforce their capitalist agenda. Most measures are meant to minimise the negative economic consequences for the bosses. For example, the state will pay for 60% of partial unemployment compensation (between 84% and 100% of an employees’ wage), which means workers’ wages will be mainly paid by workers’ taxes. These measures are supposed to prevent bosses from carrying out huge sackings.
Small firms will be able to have their bills postponed (rent, energy, loan terms), and they will have easier access to loans; if they cannot pay, the state will. And the cherry on the cake is that labour rights have been severely attacked. Bosses are now allowed to force employees to take their vacations (even though they cannot go anywhere) so they will no be able to take them when lock-down is over. In sectors considered as essential, employees can be forced to work up to 60 hours a week, compared to 48 before the Covid crisis. The statutory time between shifts has been reduced from 11 to 9 hours.
These measures are supposed to be temporary until 31 December, but the Macron government’s inconsistencies have time and time again proved true the saying, “Promises only bind those who believe in them”. There are more and more breaches of the labour laws, even when modified in this way. For example, many firms are forcing their workers to keep working while on partial unemployment. So the firm keeps making money and the state will compensate for 60% of the wages. Multinationals, such as Total, l’Oréal, Vinci, and banks, such as Société Générale, will pay bonuses to their shareholders, while whining to the government that they cannot afford to pay full wages, and subtly using the fear of mass redundancies and a major economic crisis as blackmail. Despite these measures, many workers on precarious job contracts (part-time or temporary) or in their probation period, have been laid off.
Macron’s authoritarian face has also reappeared, using military language. He announced repressive measures, such as fines of up to €3,750 and six months’ imprisonment for re-offending. Police brutality has also been seen, especially in working class areas and poor neighbourhoods. A system of online tracking through mobile phones, on a voluntary basis for now, has been developed, supposedly to monitor infected people’s movements. But it is easy to imagine how such a tool could be used as surveillance.
The crisis intensifies class inequalities
Unable to effectively tackle the crisis, the government played on fears and created panic among the population. They tried to cover up their mistakes by spreading cheerful lies, such as the supposed inefficacy of masks; now they are forced to admit that they are necessary to limit the spreading of the virus. They will also be a necessary element when lock-down is over.
The main reason why there is a huge lack of medical material is due to the fact that capitalists are only concerned with making more and more profits and governments are only concerned with pleasing the bosses, whatever the cost for workers. The only factory in Europe to make medical oxygen bottles, Luxfer (formerly part of Péchiney, a public industrial group), was closed last year. It was making one million euros in profit for twenty two million euros in revenue. But the bosses argued that it was not competitive enough, although it has a dominant position in its sector. This firm must be nationalised under workers’ democratic control and management, so it can produce the oxygen that hospitals need in France and in other countries. This example shows that there is no real lack of resources and skills to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, but that capitalists and governments put their interests before public health.
The same is true for the current way the epidemic is being managed. If there were enough masks, tests, and medical and social staff, covid-19 could be dealt with adequately. People infected could be put in quarantine and taken care of in a decent way. The only reason why large scale strict confinement has become the only solution is because of the consequences of neo-liberal policies (privatisations, commodification of all public goods, and casualisation of workers). On top of that, is the inconsistency of the French government allowing more and more sectors to keep working while enforcing a strict rule on staying indoors, which might impact severely on the possibility of resuming economic and social life soon.
Nevertheless, they have been talking of easing the lock-down with no idea of how to do it, considering that mass testing and large scale distribution of masks will be necessary. As long as key sectors of the economy and industry are in the hands of private interests, the common good will not be a priority. Some companies have been caught red-handed, hiding the face masks they had (and not even giving them to the workers). Masks bought from Chinese firms are supposed to arrive by mid-or late June. Consequently, whatever the government may say, the perspective for an end to lock-down is at least late May, maybe June, unless they continue with their criminal policies and ease the lock-down without the necessary precautions.
Anger is mounting
After announcing the strict lock-down, the polls in favour of Emmanuel Macron showed a rise to 43 %, but quickly fizzled out when even former health minister, Buzin, admitted that they knew and should have reacted earlier before the first round of the municipal elections on 15 March. Only 26 % of people surveyed consider the government reacted quickly enough and two out of three consider the government has not provided the necessary means for health professionals and infrastructure to fight the virus. At the beginning of the lock-down, 55% of French people trusted the government to manage the coronavirus epidemic. In a survey published on 7 April, that figure dropped by 14 points, and 72% of respondents believe that the government has been witholding information.
In parliament, on the vote for the health state of emergency, the Socialist Party (PS) abstained and the Communist Party (PCF) and left-wing FI (France Insoumise) voted against. The right wing’s proposals are even worse than those of the government; they are trying to gather support amongst their traditional social base who are hostile to Macron. The PS is paralysed by the situation, by their lack of any real political alternative to Macron’s policy and by their ongoing internal disputes. They have accepted Macron’s call for “national unity”. They fail to propose a credible alternative to Macron’s policy for the public services, for instance, as they share the responsibility for the previous austerity measures. They do not have support among the population and are hated by workers who remember all their anti-worker and pro-capitalist policies (in the public services, for example). So they cannot represent a reliable alternative to Macron, for the bourgeoisie.
The far right has been trying to position itself as the only opposition party, trying to play on the anger that exists. But they fail to propose any credible alternative to defend workers’ rights. Their slogans are focused on closing borders, opposing the regularisation of asylum-seekers or even organising the production of masks in prisons.
Melenchon’s France Insoumise (FI) has been the only force to oppose the government in the parliament. It made concrete proposals, well before the crisis, such as funding the public services with resources commensurate with the needs. They have rightly put forward their programme as a basis for discussion to prepare for the period after the lock-down. They emphasise the need for nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, the closing down of all non-essential sectors and firms, in order to help put an end to the epidemic and protect workers, the requisitioning of firms to enable the production of the necessary medical equipment.
The FI has launched a campaign on social networks for a weekly Saturday online “demonstration”, during which workers can share slogans, demands, posters against Macron’s policy and prepare for struggles after lock-down, under the hashtag #plusjamaisça (#never again). On Saturday 4 April, more than 100,000 tweets were counted and the hashtag trended in first position for three hours.
Other political forces, trade unions and associations, can join in with their own slogans and demands. Imagine what a real party could do to help coordinate collective resistance (discussions, mutual aid and solidarity, posters, leaflets, mobilisations, support for workers under pressure from their management, for those sanctioned, and with the right to withdraw their labour).
What has hindered workers’ and youth struggles in recent years is not the lack of will to fight, but the absence of a political programme for a struggle against the capitalists and their governments, suppoprted by thousands of workers, young people and trade unionists united together. Today, with the world crisis of Covid-19, it is obvious that the interests of the majority of the population and the private interests of the capitalists cannot be reconciled. The defence of a real public health service requires, in addition to immediate demands for sufficient means and investment, fighting for the expropriation and nationalisation of private clinics and labratories, and the creation of a public monopoly over health services and provision.
New mass worker’s party
In the current situation, a new workers’ party could help workers organise with their unions in the workplaces. On the one hand, this would stop unnecessary production and protect workers; and, on the other hand, it would reorganise the production of all necessary goods (masks, tests, medical equipment, and food).
To support and help the weakest people in society -the homeless, the migrants and the working poor – a mass workers’ party could demand the requisitioning of the three million empty homes there are in France, and provide the political means to discuss and organise it.
Only a mass political party, organising all those who want to resist and fight against capitalism, will be able to provide leadership. A party of workers and youth would enable us to organise for struggles and offer a democratic framework to discuss and elaborate a programme that defends our interests against those of the capitalists.
Workers and young people must have their own voice. A programme of action and struggle, of demands, a political programme that would allow us to be stronger and united to fight back. It was this that was lacking in the fight against pension reform, between December, last year, and February 2020, in order to be able to thwart the plans of Macron and the big bosses.
In France, as elsewhere, capitalism has proved incapable of managing the covid-19 crisis in the interest of workers, youth and poor people, as it has already proved in previous health, environmental and economic crises.
It is time to get rid of the capitalist virus! We need to organise to build a society based on the needs of all, a society free from exploitation and the rule of profit for a minority of parasites. We need to build a society organised along socialist lines with democratic control and management at every level of the economy.