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French Society: A Collective Test for Coronavirus

The French Republic has been quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic. This measure, unprecedented for the French, was introduced on March 16, 2020, by Emmanuel Macron. It provoked an intellectual storm among the French political establishment and intelligentsia.
The 2020 black swan in France, as in the rest of the world, forces us to rethink the modern world, its laws and functioning, but also ourselves: our country, our political system and our own mentality.

A collective test for coronavirus in French society revealed an acute reaction to the following 4 topics:

1) How positive is globalisation and what should its limits be?
2) Is there still a common Europe, and why didn’t it react in a coordinated manner?
3) Democracy, neoliberalism and human rights - are they compatible with the security measures that the government must introduce to protect the population?
4) Finally, who are we, as French? Are we able to be conscientious and responsible citizens? Can we abandon our extreme individualism in the name of saving our country?

It is very rare to encounter any unison between the votes of the left and right camps in France. In March 2020, the coronavirus was able to unite the irreconcilable: French socialists and conservatives, albeit only on one issue, related to the borders of globalisation. Both on the pages of the right-conservative Figaro and on the pages of the socialist Liberation, the same curses can be found condemning irresistible ‘mondialization’. Journalists and politicians write that the moment of truth has come for optimistic globalists, since the coronavirus clearly demonstrates that excessive, uncontrolled globalization is not just evil, but a danger to all of humanity. If earlier political scientists speculated that globalisation processes had divided the world into winners and losers (outsiders), then COVID-19 showed that in fact losers are everywhere. The French publicist Ivan Rioufol states that we are witnessing the end of a utopia named "globalization".
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Less radical experts in France agree that we are more likely to see the myth of “happy” globalization being destroyed, which brings only benefits to humanity. The first pandemic of the 21st century indicates that the triumph of uncontrolled globalisation is a short-term and very ephemeral moment in history. Hubert Védrine (French Foreign Minister in 1997-2002) points out that in the euphoria of endless consumption, mankind has lost the ability to view globalisation processes critically. As a result, we came to an erroneous understanding of this phenomenon: the liberalisation of financial processes and the use of supply chains along the periphery-centre line. Blind confidence in the invisible hand of globalisation brought the world to a red line.

The general attitude regarding the unity of Europe in French society is pessimistic. For the French, it is obvious that the pan-European reaction was too late and insufficient. Eric Zemmour, a scandalous writer because of his ultra-right-wing beliefs, claims that the European Union as an institution became the first real victim of the COVID-19 virus. The Italians from Lombardy, faced with the threat of death from a new virus, turned not to Brussels, but still to Rome. The French made jokes at the beginning of the Italian tragedy, and Berlin refused to supply medical equipment to their European brothers. Closed borders in Europe are the end of all illusions about a united Europe, concludes the convinced Eurosceptic Zemmour.

Criticism of internal political processes in France is just as merciless. Blind faith in the effectiveness of economic neoliberalism and in a world without geographical borders, as well as absolute fidelity to globalism (Macron's famous quote that the virus does not have a passport), are the reasons for the French defeat in the battle with coronavirus. The virus was able to complete the task that the "yellow vests" did not have time to complete - to debunk the myth of "happy globalisation", which is equally beneficial to everyone and brings only positive results.

Of course, the left and right in France criticise the Palais de l'Élysé in different ways and for different things. Right-wing conservatives emphasize national interests,  sovereignty, and the subordination of France to global processes. In his address to the French people, Macron used the word “war” 6 times: Where is the weapon and the strategy with which the president is going to wage this war? Are there in France enough masks, since even under Francois Hollande it was decided not to produce them anymore? Macron is blamed for his globalist attitudes, thanks to which France made it dependent on China for masks: after all, the country has been purchasing them from there in recent years.

Leftists are wondering if the current president, a descendant from the banking sector, is able to become more socially oriented after shock therapy with the COVID-19 virus. In an appeal to the nation on March 16, Macron drew attention to national interests, the protection of socially disadvantaged groups, and also stated that health should not be bought and that there were non-market values. For socialists, the coronavirus is seen as a good lesson for the president, who, being blinded by successes in the global arena, ceased to notice and understand ordinary Frenchmen. 

However, among the French, there are not only critics, but also optimists. A number of journalists and politicians are now writing that France can set an example for other countries and offer an alternative to the Chinese way of defeating the virus. Yes, in Europe decisions are made more slowly, but they are achieved through persuasion and end with a consensus. The European MP Francois-Xavier Bellamy believes that France has sufficiently-developed civic responsibility and strong democratic mechanisms, thanks to which the French will be able to show their individual consciousness for the collective good without an authoritarian state.
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Force majeure circumstances justify tough steps and new means of governance, which otherwise may have led to public opposition and protests. Like any epidemic, COVID-19 is a temporary phenomenon. But the arrival of an emergency, however fleeting, can provoke changes that will remain with us for a long time. In the near future, companies that do not move to remote methods of work, where it is physically possible, may become a black sheep, writes Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.
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The topic of civil liability is today the subject of heated debate in French society. During the first week of quarantine, the police wrote over 9,000 fines to irresponsible citizens who could not overcome the desire to take a walk along the deserted beaches of Normandy or Nice. Debates take place on television, where journalists, politicians, and public figures each evening discuss whether it is necessary to tighten the quarantine or impose a curfew or to think of new punitive measures for violators. Basically, everyone agrees on what is needed. However, here, in my opinion, the influence of the French esprit critique (critical thinking) is strong, which is equally acute in relation to foreigners and in relation to ourselves.

The discussion on the coronavirus and the related problems of globalisation, a united Europe, the effectiveness of the French government and, finally, French identity looks too critical. But does anyone have any constructive suggestions? How should the world change so that we don’t see a repeat of the pandemic, at least in the 21st century? As always, there are only a few constructive proposals. I would select two of these.

Hubert Vedrine notes that by 2020, we had not created a strong international community. None of the established international organisations became centres for decision-making at the time of the crisis. The WHO and UN, in fact, limited themselves to the provision of information. In the future, Vedrine believes, a new world order must be created. In this new world order, the main role should be assigned to interstate cooperation, and not to the mythical world community. It is necessary to radically revise the significance of state borders. Euphoria about a world without borders is a deadly danger, as we saw in early 2020. Borders are not evil; borders provide protection and security. The significance of boundaries must be rehabilitated in world politics.

French writer Sylvain Tesson, winner of the Goncourt Prize and the most widely read writer in France in 2019, believes that this spring can help us reach one simple conclusion: globalisation is not inevitable, globalisation is not irreversible. Globalisation can be controlled with the political will of national leaders. After the crisis, we are waiting for a renaissance of a real policy that will free itself from economic determinism and will be able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.