Hard times in France in managing the pandemic

by Raul Magni Berton

This text addresses the comments developed in French media, 23.02.2021 on RFI (radio) , 28.01.2021 in Reporterre (newspaper) , and 14.10.2021 in Slate (online magazine)

In Western Europe, France is the country where the restrictions of individual rights and their implementation are rather severe. Unlike in other countries, such as Germany or the Netherlands, the policies against the Covid19 in France were more restrictive during the first wave than during the second one. Thus, the French feel less constrained in February 2021 than in April 2020, while the Dutch feel more constrained. However, the objective level of constraints in February 2021 is still higher in France than in the Netherlands. Overall, compared to its European neighbors France is characterized by a high level of centralization and authoritarianism, with more or less flexible restrictions and extremely drastic and unpredictable decisions compared to its German, Dutch or Danish neighbors. 

Is this due to the state of emergency? For example, in Poland, the state of emergency was not declared, but the measures are still very strict. In Denmark, the state of emergency was declared, but individual rights are more protected. In some cases, a solid legal framework for the state of emergency can help to protect individual rights. This is not the case in France. 

Is this due to the centralization? Until now, considering the amount of deaths and contagions, there is no clear comparative advantage between centralized and decentralized management of the pandemic. Decentralized countries allow for management that is more adapted to local circumstances, but a centralized country favors coordination between the different territories. During the first wave, decentralized countries fared better. In 2021 this advantage is less obvious. In centralized countries, when there are a lot of deaths, when management is difficult, there are regular protests calling to decentralize. Conversely, in decentralized countries, when these difficult situations are faced, there are protests to centralize. However, what is clear is that decentralized countries have provided more checks and balances to reduce the risk of over-restriction of individual liberties. 

Is it important to have checks and balances? Definitely yes, and not only at territorial level. The French majority electoral system contrasts with the need for cohesion among its European partners. In Germany, Belgium or Sweden, there are proportional electoral systems, thus no party can govern alone, and the governing coalition represents 51 percent of the population. One is forced to take into account other views and choose consensual decisions, even during the storm. In France, there is an extreme and unique disproportion in history: about 14 percent of registered voters voted for the current coalition in government, which has about 60 percent of the seats. The central issue in this crisis is that people should behave in a coordinated way and trust the government in a reasonable way. If the government represents only a small part of the population, a vicious circle develops: when people don’t trust the measures taken, they don’t follow them; then the next political measures will be more restrictive, then people will again reduce their confidence in the government.