The COVID-19 epidemic in France has already claimed 2000 lives, and it is early days yet.
Two presidential speeches, on March 12 and 16, have transformed life by closing schools, universities, non-essential shops, parks, cinemas and restaurants.
The President's speeches also transformed politics for the next decade and posed the question of how this crisis will affect class struggle in a country where class consciousness and activity have been high these past years.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime test for the capitalist state, but also for anti-capitalists.
Macron has understood the extent and depth of the current health crisis and of the economic slump that will follow. He is positioning himself as a reliable representative of the medium-term interests of French capitalists. He is finding huge sums of money he had previously said did not exist, mostly to prop up companies, but occasionally to help workers and their families.
This is the biggest political crisis since World War II. Although it is not comparable to the war (despite Macron’s repeating “We are at war” in his speeches), what is certainly true is that the flourishing of any political or class organisation — left or right, reactionary, reformist or revolutionary — in the decades to come, depends on its proposing initiatives now to defend its class interests. In Macron’s case — the capitalists; for the left — working people.
Having been shaken by the stock market crash and the real risk of high mortality rates from the virus — which could threaten social stability in a country where workers are used to fighting back and Yellow Vest demonstrations and riots have marked the last year — Macron took some radical decisions.
No-one is to leave home without having printed and signed a document saying where they are going and why, and there is only a very short list of acceptable reasons. Funerals and weddings are not allowed.
Huge amounts of money have suddenly been found (and Macron has announced his support for the European Central Bank’s decision to spend €750 billion buying up debt).
Most will be to help big business but, for political reasons, Macron emphasised help for small companies: electricity bills and rent for small businesses and for the self-employed will be suspended. All businesses can postpone their payment of national insurance contributions.
There was also money to considerably expand workers’ rights to sickness benefits, benefits for staying home to care for children, and benefits if they are laid off (though lower than one’s wages).
But Macron is doing far less than what is needed.
Very little was announced for the homeless, for prisoners and for refugees in detention centres. There is no huge requisition of industry to produce ventilators, masks, gel, gloves and other necessities. Indeed, there are no figures at all for what will be spent on the health system, as it comes under tremendous strain.
At the end of March, as hospitals are stretched to the absolute limit, it is clear the government is doing only a quarter of what is needed.
Suddenly forgetting the huge cuts in numbers of hospital beds, which he has presided over, and the vicious police violence unleashed on striking nurses in recent months, Macron has hailed health workers as “heroes and heroines”, promising state-funded taxis and hotel rooms for them throughout the crisis, as well as emergency childcare provision.
Neoliberal cuts suspended
More surprisingly, for those who had not understood the depth of this crisis, was Macron’s announcement on March 16 that all neoliberal measures will be suspended.
This includes pausing the vicious attack on pensions, which has led to more powerful strikes than we have seen here for decades. It also includes stopping the harsh reforms to unemployment benefits and the Thatcherite attack on universities, against which resistance was growing.
Macron is hoping to show the bosses and the stock market that he has a plan for the recovery and that, even if it involves spending billions, he has a fighting chance of building sufficient national action and consensus to take the country through the next few months without half a million people dead or rioting in the streets.
The markets hate uncertainty, and anything that walks like a plan and quacks like a plan is a relief.
Macron pledged a “massive plan of investment” and higher wages “for all health service occupations” on March 25, promising that they would not be forgotten once the crisis is over.
Presidential promises are cheap. Nevertheless, in a context of huge, unheard-of expressions of support by millions of people in the nightly “clap for health workers” events, this promise represents Macron’s response to the balance of forces, and will make it easier for our side to fight for better wages and conditions in hospitals.
Macron is facing plenty of political difficulties. It is becoming clear that he could have announced a lockdown and other measures weeks earlier.
Minister for Health Agnès Buzyn, who was moved to a different role mid-February, has now revealed that she warned the government at the end of January of “the tidal wave” that was coming, saying the municipal election campaigns should have been cancelled.
In the first round of municipal elections on March 15, between Macron’s two speeches, his candidates did very badly. This was due to the tremendous unpopularity of Macron’s neoliberal attacks and the low level of local involvement of his ramshackle newish party, En Marche.
Every passing day is showing — graphically and murderously — how useless his neoliberalism is in fighting the deadly virus.
A head of state who announces a highly necessary lockdown might hope to gain some popularity in an atmosphere of national unity. This past week Macron has repeated the word “unity” at every opportunity.
It may be too late for him, however, since two years of vicious cuts and repression have left him with a narrow support base.
A March 26 poll showed 59% consider government measures to be “insufficient”, while only 43% are satisfied. Eighty-three percent think the government has been too slow ramping up testing numbers, while an overwhelming 88% think it is too slow in getting the production and distribution of masks happening.
Macron had intended to make some small reforms favourable to workers in the second half of his term, in the hope of re-election. As this unprecedented crisis rolls on, he has the chance to thoroughly test his plans for the survival of French capitalism, using all the resources and legitimacy the presidential throne provides. There are likely to be further surprising measures.
Naturally, Macron will also try to profit from the crisis to move against workers.
A new law now allows bosses “in essential sectors”, including transport and freight, to ignore regulations about maximum number of hours worked in a day, or in a week, for the next two years. Workers will be made to work up to 12 hours a day and up to 60 hours a week. Sunday work will be deregulated. Rather than hire the unemployed, workers’ health will be put at risk.
These measures were bundled up with other lock-down provisions and rushed through parliament. The 17 leftist France Insoumise (FI) MPs and the 12 Communists voted against them. The 26 Socialist Party MPs abstained.
A crisis where it is best for everyone to stay at home for several weeks presents a completely new challenge to the organised left. Some still seem stunned, leaving some individuals tempted by multiple versions of what are basically conspiracy theories.
There are three aspects to focus on. First, we need to get involved in local mutual help schemes.
Secondly, we need to demand that health comes before profit. Housing must be requisitioned immediately for the homeless, production of essential items such as ventilators and masks must be accelerated, without respect for patents or profits, companies must be nationalised to avoid mass redundancies, all non-essential production must be closed down until the virus is beaten, the development of drugs and vaccines must be massively funded and organised by public bodies. Adequate health protection for essential workers must be an absolute priority (and there will be many more demands).
Finally, we need to focus on patiently explaining all the ways in which capitalist austerity, the dictatorship of profit and the division of the world into competing national economies have made this crisis a thousand times worse than it could have been in a real economic democracy — a socialist production system.
Across France, neighbourhood help groups are being set up. A particular symbol is the increasingly popular 8pm appointment, when we all go to our windows to applaud the health workers and other essential workers. This is happening in buildings that have no real tradition of collective initiative.
In my town, the Communist mayor has set up a council-led system to make sure isolated or vulnerable people are not forgotten.
Even some commercial companies are taking some good decisions. One supermarket chain has set up a toll-free number, offering free delivery of groceries for the elderly.
Education unions have generally been able to pressure the administration to agree that hourly-paid teachers will not lose money, even if their classes cannot take place.
The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) has demanded that industry be shut down if it is not necessary to fight the epidemic, and is mobilising to insist on protective measures for those who must work.
Macron declared on March 19 that any work that cannot be done online must continue (despite the known and huge danger), while one of his ministers accused those wanting to shut down building sites of “defeatism”.
At the same time, the government is theatrically denouncing people who go out of their homes too often, as if they were the main problem.
FI, which gained about 14.5% of the vote nationally in the municipal elections, is asking people to sign up to “I want to be an activist from home”, and giving advice on how to organise group discussions via the internet and how to intervene in debates in the national media.
François Ruffin, a popular FI member of parliament, is collecting people’s experiences and writing a book with others using an online tool where one can read along each day as the book progresses.
FI MPs are proposing that paying out dividends to shareholders be banned until January 2022. The group has presented a list of 11 key demands, including: €10 billion for the health system now; requisitioning factories for health supplies; mass testing; and an end to hospital charges for all patients.
The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) is insisting that workers should have time off, on full pay, in all sectors of production that are not essential to fighting the virus. It is also calling for massive recruitment in the hospitals, as well as a ban on all redundancies.
The Communist Party of France supports similar demands.
Strike action has been called to demand better safety conditions by lorry drivers, bus operators, chemical industry workers, bottle manufacturers and Amazon employees.
Because working people have fought for rights and respect over the centuries, our rulers cannot just react to the virus by saying: “Three percent of the population dying, mostly old people, won’t affect profits too much: bring it on!”
However, because working people have not managed to overthrow the dictatorship of profit, humanity is fighting the virus with both hands tied behind its back.
This crisis will test political organisations and ideas like nothing else has for 80 years, as both capitalists and anti-capitalists try to argue that their vision deserves to guide the future of humanity.
As French airline companies ask for €185 billion in government bailouts to prop up their profit-making (almost €3000 for every person in France — far more than a month’s wage for every worker), we need to unite and fight for the idea that our health comes before their profits.
[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist and a supporter of FI living in the Paris region.]