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“The state must give much more place to the social partners when it comes to social negotiations and decisions in the enterprise and less when it comes to running the system. It will be a tough struggle,” he wrote. The role of others is to get below stairs and never presume to any right to determine what his government should do.

A year and a half ago, to drive down diesel use – France has been drunk on the stuff for decades – the price was pushed up, devastating the budgets of poorer drivers with no other available transport. The explosion of anger that became the Gilets Jaunes had roundabouts occupied, town centres hosting weekly rallies and the opinion polls, as for all his other “reforms”, firmly against the President. Nasty police violence, some careful concessions and the promise that after a “Grand National Debate” the President would offer solutions, helped to erode the active opposition. The ‘debate’ consisted of exchanges between audiences of local mayors or selected members of the public and Macron. He answered every point, often in bravura performances than ran for hours and hours.


In the very first of these debates in a small Normandy town, sealed off from the protesters by squads of police, the left wing mayor from nearby Bernay asked why the maternity unit in the town’s hospital was being shut down. It was one of the few occasions when Macron temporised, offering a shifty reply of half-truths. Before the ‘great debate’ had concluded, the hospital’s emergency ward staff had joined colleagues across France in a work to rule in protest at chronic shortages of staff and equipment. En grève banners were everywhere when I carried my partner into that ward after she broke her ankle in a cycling accident nearby. They were there when I wheeled her to the St Antoine Hospital, one of Paris’ largest, round the corner from our flat, to have the plaster taken off.

They were still there, if a bit tattered after a year of action, when Macron addressed the French public with “I am counting on you . . . because we are a nation”. Oddly enough that was just the exchange he had had in the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital just over the Seine from us two weeks earlier. He had gone to meet some of those he now terms “the heroes in white coats” and was caught on camera in an exchange: Doctor: “We are at our limits.” Macron: “I am there.” Doctor: “No you are not … We have had a year of denial … Now you have to act.” Macron: “I am counting on you.” Doctor: “Ah, you can count on me, but the reverse is yet to be demonstrated.”

The President preferred to run the risk that he knew better than the doctor. That day, the Oise department, just to the north of Paris, saw the first death in France with health ministry officials identifying “a chain of infection” there. The minister took his lead from above: though there wasn’t one, “we are prepared for an epidemic”.

Risk is something the French state has long been happy to engage with. The country is, for instance, more dependent on nuclear power for its electricity generation than any other in the world. Public complacency has been secured by low prices for consumers. But the reactors are now old. Worse, three years ago, one of France’s nuclear safety agencies revealed an extraordinary history of errors in the manufacture of the 58 reactors and the falsification of documents in a systematic decades-long cover up by their constructor.

Macron’s Health Minister, Agnes Buzyn, a doctor by profession, was the head of the parallel IRSN safety agency from 2008 to 2013 when it was drawing up what is still France’s official National Response Plan for a Major Nuclear Accident published in 2014. Much of the plan details how an inter-ministerial committee should work. On page 19 you find a statement that “The Prime Minister determines the main action approaches for (its) work in the preparation of the political and strategic choices for state announcements.”

This becomes interesting as an example of how the French state operates in the context of what Buzyn has now said about what she did when the risk of Covid-19 loomed this January and February.

Agnes Buzyn

She was pushed out of the health ministry at the end of February and into the election of Mayor of Paris after the President’s favoured candidate, former government spokesperson Benjamin Grivaux, was caught out having sent to his then mistress a smart phone video of himself masturbating. His campaign was already collapsing. Buzyn did no better, coming a sorry third.

Then, in the bitter disappointment of that electoral slap in the face, she revealed that she had warned the Premier, Edouard Philippe, of the seriousness of the situation at the end of January. The daily Le Monde cited her as saying on the Monday: “The 20th of December I warned the Director General for Health (Jérôme Salomon, who now graces tv screens with a daily litany of the toll in infections and deaths) The 11th of January, I sent a message to the President on the situation. The 30th of January, I advised Philippe that the elections could not go ahead.” The final quote from her in the paper? “I always say ‘Minister one day, doctor everyday’. The hospital is going to have need of me. There are going to be thousands of deaths.”

Buzyn was responding in these behind the scenes messages to what she was receiving from the UN’s World Health Organisation. Notice how the United Nations and its agencies has been sidelined by European governments in this crisis? The WHO did not get a mention during either of his addresses. You would not know from listening to him that the WHO had been raising the alarm since 10 January when it sent a National Capacities review tool for a novel coronavirus to every government in the world. Test, test, test; prepare, prepare prepare, it repeated and repeated.