By Najete Michell
On Wednesday the 28 October, President Macron held a press conference in which he explained the propagation of the virus in Europe in this second wave was a surprise for many and consequently a new lockdown would start on Friday 30 October in France.
Indeed, at the moment France is experiencing not just a wave, but a whole tide of rising infections. Macron has said the official figures are 50,000 new cases per day. Although, he himself admitted in his speech the true figure is closer to 100,000 new cases daily. As regards to Covid deaths, there were recently around 290 deaths per day in hospitals, to which must be added the Covid death in care homes for elderly people. Macron has warned that the death toll in this wave is likely to be worse than in the first wave.
This new wave was not a so called ‘surprise’. Scientists have been warning about it for months but Macron let the infection spread as much as possible to the point where France had the worst virus problem in Europe and the countries that border France had to take measures to protect themselves from France.
So yes the situation is an emergency and Macron’s response is completely inadequate. To tackle such a tide, very urgent and drastic measures would be required. Instead Macron’s proposed ‘lockdown’ is not remotely a real lockdown. Schools and workplaces will not be closed, so the virus will continue to spread in those places.
Macron has become an expert in saying one thing and doing just the contrary. For example he previously explained herd immunity was not an option, when this is effectively the policy he is pursuing.
Although the number of cases and deaths is already worse than in the first wave at the same stage, Macron is proposing a far lighter lockdown. His only concern is the number of beds in intensive care units, which at the present pace could be all filled by mid November.
Discontent is growing in the population about this new ‘lockdown’.
French people have in mind what happened in the first lockdown which was quite strict. Schools and many non essential work places were closed, alongside parks, beaches, even woods. Limitations on people’s movements were enforced. Paris residents could not travel outside Paris for example. To buy necessary goods, go to the doctor or walk outside one’s home for one hour per day one had to carry a special certificate with the exact date and hour of leaving home, or incur a 135€ fine.
A group of young doctors called on the Conseil d’Etat to take the necessary public health measures, rightly calling for a total lockdown.
Unfortunately in the first wave not all workplaces closed. 27% people went to work, often without masks and also often using crowded public transport. The efficiency of the first lockdown was also substantially reduced as there was no testing available, a crying lack of masks for the population and PPE for health workers, a lack of basic medicines, and life support equipment in ICUs. Hospitals experienced shortages on many fronts: staff, material, beds, all this being the result of cuts in previous years.
Consequently many French people have held the government responsible for the lack of preparedness and the delay in reacting, as the requirements to fight the pandemic were known well in advance. It was responsible for many avoidable deaths.
Despite it only being a partial lockdown earlier this year, it lasted one month and 25 days and succeeded in reducing the R0 to 0.68 i.e. one infected person was on average transmitting the virus to less than one other person (ie to 0.68 people), rather than to two or three. This meant that the curve of new cases stopped rising exponentially.
Suddenly Macron called for the lifting of the lockdown. This was not organised rationally, even less was it properly planned for. There was no explanation why 11 May was chosen to lift the restrictions and it was definitely too early, given the virus had not been eliminated, nor the numbers of new cases reduced to sufficiently small numbers so that the rate of infections could continue to be suppressed. Added to which there was no proper system in place for detection of the virus, nor for tracing those who had been in contact with infected people, nor a system of isolation to reduce the spread of the virus.
Life did not exactly come back to normal, and unfortunately people became more and more disorientated after the lifting of the lockdown. The government’s message was incoherent. People had made a lot of efforts. They had accepted discipline and the restrictions imposed on them in the partial lockdown. Many concerned by the lack of protective equipment, started to sew masks etc. Others helped get essential supplies for those who had nothing – some were nearly starving, and a vast network of solidarity was created.
Also suddenly social distancing was not being promoted as important. By August Macron had completely changed his language and was saying: ‘we must learn to live with the virus’. He had changed strategy. Previously he had tried to reduce the speed that the virus spread (not eliminate it). After lifting the partial lockdown in effect he was inciting people to let it spread as much as possible. As the French population was now allowed to move away from the big cities, these previously being the worst effected areas, inevitably the numbers of new cases started rising all over France throughout the summer. These two maps below and here illustrate the difference in the levels of infection between early July ( the top map) and late October (the map below) – the black areas are those with more than 100 cases for 100,000 inhabitants.
While Macron made some alarmist statements about the rise of new cases, he remained absolutely passive about the national government taking action, instead transferring the responsibility for taking new measures to local authorities (Prefects and Mayors), leaving many people having to deal with this increasingly dangerous situation without help. For example, when cases of the virus started to escalate in Brittany it was the youth who were blamed, for having enjoyed too many parties on the beaches during their summer holidays.
The masks and tests, which were so much lacking during the first wave, become more available in August. People were encouraged to have tests but there was no central organisation -it was up to each individual to take the initiative. However there was still insufficient testing capacity. In the streets, in front of laboratories, long queues of people waited to be tested. The results of tests, which previously arrived within 48 hours, were taking more than a week, which made the whole exercise ineffective in terms of tracing contacts and isolating.
This chaos and disorganisation just continued. Now with this second even more partial ‘lockdown’ the same mistakes are being repeated that were made in the first lockdown in March.
Firstly, the government has waited far too long to introduce the new restrictions, when it has been obvious we were heading towards this situation for at least two months.
Secondly, the same fallacious rhetoric is being used: the government is applying a ‘graduated’ response to the rapidly spreading epidemic, when an immediate proper lockdown is called for when the spread of the virus is ‘out of control’ – Macron’s correct description of the situation. As the WHO has indicated, when the growth of new cases is rising exponentially the set of small partial measures that Macron is calling the second ‘lockdown’, is not remotely going to stop the expansion of the pandemic.
Thirdly, insufficient resources are being invested in the health system and the shortage of staff is worsening.
All this is likely to lead to a disastrous rise in Covid deaths.
The Islamophobia offensive
Just prior to the new partial lockdown, the news in France was dominated by the horrible murder of Samuel Paty, beheaded by an Islamist terrorist. This horror created a big shock in all the components of French society and was rightly widely condemned.
Instead of focussing their response specifically against terrorism, the government has launched a huge campaign, of propaganda and actions, against Muslims, their organisations and their allies. The media has been full of racism and Islamophobia – Muslim and anti-racist views have barely been reported as free speech in the press as only been available to racists.
Worse than the media offensive, the state has launched an assault on Muslim organisations and is representing all Muslims as similar to the terrorist. Gerald Darmanin, the Home Secretary, has been falsely pointing to a relationship between Islam and terrorism, declaring that he will investigate more than 50 Muslim organisations, suddenly all under suspicion of Islamist ‘extremism’ and he says he will determine whether they should be disbanded. Muslim organisations have been raided.
Darmanin is particularly looking into whether to ban the CCIF, Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France. It is a broadly based human rights organisation, which provides legal help for Muslims and is recognised by the UN
Around 80% of the victims of Islamophobia in France are women who are attacked for wearing the hijab. They are abused verbally and also physically when they walk in the streets or: go to a restaurant, on a beach, into public service offices, to the doctor, apply for a job, or even when attending a parliamentary session, etc. The CCIF does very thorough work in defending their rights and fighting against discrimination. You can read here their most recent report (2019) here.
Despite no evidence that the CCIF in any way supports terrorism, because it does not, Darmanin is discussing its dissolution in order to ‘send a message’. He is not proposing to ban it because of any evidence based on concrete facts, but because he wants to ‘send a message’. And the message it is already sending is that fighting racism and Islamophobia in France is being criminalised and that Muslims are not going to be allowed to stand up for themselves, or even to speak up against the abuse they suffer – greatly increasing the oppression of Muslims in France.
In his repressive rush against Muslims, Darmanin has also declared he is annoyed at the diverse sections of food provision in supermarkets which he calls ‘communautariste’, his way of attacking shops’ halal provision in particular. He is also targeting left wing journalists and academics, human right organisations such as La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, Amnesty International and other organisations that fight racism. According to him they are spreading the poison of ‘separatism’. This has turned into a witch hunt against a wide range of progressive people who are being labelled ‘islamo leftists’. It is suggested that those on the left who defend the human rights of Muslims are themselves Islamist and possibly support terrorism.
For those not familiar with French semantics, some explanations is needed. ‘Separatism’ is the new word being used in a legislative bill currently under discussion. It is taking the place of the word ‘communautarisme’. It is a straight forward way of attacking minorities, particularly Muslims and other black minorities, that seek to defend their culture within French society. Accusing minorities of failing to ‘integrate’ for a long time has been a key way to promote systemic racism in France – it is used by official institutions to deny equal rights and status to France’s black communities, many of which are abandoned in suburban ghettos with poor public services, and minimal resources allocated to education, accommodation and jobs.
The concept of ‘Communautarisme’ is a racist idea, put forward so that minorities can be blamed for all the racism they experience – it all being their own fault because they maintain their culture and do not abandon it. They are accused of wanting to live separately, because they eat their own food, choose their own clothes, listen to their own music etc. These accusations are used to justify the deprived circumstances in which most minorities live in France and to suggest their poverty is because it is claimed they refuse to mix with others. They are blamed for living in the ghettos they have been forced into. Worse than that, those who dare organise and struggle for their rights are considered to be ‘plotting’, so must be immediately viciously criticised by the media and politicians. Minority populations in France, in particular Muslims have to confront many obstacles in their attempts to pursue their rights.
The bill on separatism, proposed at the beginning of October by the government, focuses on so called ‘Islamist’ separatism. Among others, one article of the bill demands that any Muslim organisation should pledge a vow of laïcité (secularism). Here again, this is a specific vocabulary used in French polemics, behind which racism often hides. So called ‘hard secularists’ accuse Muslims of not applying laïcité. It is an accusation originally made by the Islamophobic far right, and has since been taken up by much wider political forces, including regrettably sections of the left. Early on, it the concept was raised to attack women who wear the hijab, their choice of clothes being depicted as an infringement of secularism. This article here explains how the concept of ‘laïcité’ is used to attack Muslims in France. Now the concept is being used to attack the whole of Islam and all Muslims. One of the current claims being made is that ‘Islam is incompatible with the Republic’. The meaning of the 1905 law on secularism is being totally distorted. It imposed a separation of religions from the state, forbade public financing of churches, but protected freedom of worship. In fact this law is a tool that can be used against these anti-Muslim attacks as it protects the rights of religions.
Following the gruesome killing of the school teacher Samuel Paty, further debate about the right to free speech also broke out. Paty was murdered after he had shown his pupils in class caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The media and much of the French political spectrum insisted on the right to show caricatures, that the right to blasphemy exists in France etc. Things went so far that caricatures of Muhammad were projected on to the walls of buildings in Toulouse, in the name of freedom of expression. Others proposed that showing the caricatures should become part of the curriculum in high schools. Of course any suggestion that those images might be insulting to Muslims, and offend them, has not been aired in this hateful climate. Freedom of speech is only put forward for one part of society, not for all, and not for Muslims – whose voices are being silenced. At the same time those non-Muslims who oppose Islamophobia are portrayed as potentially building links with ‘jihadists’.
This stigmatisation of the Muslim community is not new in France. The country which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at around five million, has seen a long chain of abuses against them, rooted in its colonial past, in particular the Algerian war of independence, the outcome of which has never accepted by a significant part of the French population. The imperialist view was that Muslims were expected to shut up and work for the grandeur of France.
In recent years there had been some progressive developments. Black communities and anti-racist activists have been mobilising. There was a very large, 40, 000 strong, demonstration against Islamophobia on 10 November 2019. Its size was a surprise to everyone. This was part of a more general revival of black communities fighting against discrimination. Four years ago Adama Traoré was killed by the police as many other black people have been for decades (about 15 die a year at the hands of the police). This time, however, the campaign to demand justice and truth about Adama’s death achieved a national, even international, audience. The anger gained momentum as the case was disregarded by the justice system which instead sough to criminalise the family.
When the Gilets Jaunes took to the streets, there were many who thought that these white unorganised people, who had been pauperised by the neo liberal policies introduced by Sarkozy and carried on by Hollande and Macron, would not take up progressive issues like anti-racism and would fail to side with black people. This did not happen. The government, fed up with these unpredictable endless demonstrations of the Gilets Jaunes, sent the police into repress them. Many in the Gilets Jaunes movement realised this police violence had been the norm for years in the suburbs where the black youth live. It led to one spokepersons of the Gilets Jaunes making an apology to the black community for having ignored and not been in solidarity with them. The scale of police violence shocked many people and was a major topic in the media for more than a year. Part of the Gilets Jaunes movement started to join the demonstrations of the black youth fighting for truth and justice for the victims of police brutality.
When after the death of Georges Floyd the Black Lives Matter movement reached France it had an immediate impact on French society. There were two huge demonstrations that focussed on those who had been killed by French police, which were also inspired by the wave of US BLM mobilisations. The French victims of police racism, Adama and others, have for years been important issues for Black youth in France. The Adama committee systematically organised for the demonstrations, which took place during the first lockdown. Simultaneously the debate on systemic racism, many progressive ideas about racism which had been for so long rejected, came to the fore, were discussed and accepted.
For France’s political establishment it is not acceptable that anti-racism should enter the mainstream news, that an alliance could form between black communities fighting for their rights and white parts of the working class. It needs these developments to be halted immediately. The racist and Islamophobic offensive of the government has been stepped up in attempt to beat back the anti-racist advances made as a large part of the masses has been supporting the BLM movement in France. Whether the government can stop and reverse this historical movement remains to be seen.
After three years in office Macron and his team have damaged their own reputations, as the municipal elections earlier this year confirmed. His disastrous management of the Gilets Jaunes protests, the big strikes against the pension reform, the COVID pandemic, and his authoritarian stance have been undermining his popularity. His turn to a witch-hunt against Muslims and anyone fighting Islamophobia is an attempt to try to win over the supporters of Marine Lepen in advance of the next 2022 presidential elections. This is very dangerous as it risks strengthening the far right by legitimising its message. If voters are persuaded by Macron’s message that the problem in France is Muslims, then some will conclude it is better to vote for Lepen, who most vociferous articulates that racist message, rather than vote for a politician who appears to be just copying her.