16 October 2020

France faces up to its Covid failure


The French judge their government harshly – but it was ever thus in my country. Our political system is very centralised, and the French have long seen politics as the engine of history. That’s why the relationship between people and government – and especially the President of the Republic – has always been fraught. When something doesn’t work properly in our country, most of the public pin the blame on the government and expect the state to furnish a solution. In fact, it’s very rare that a French president is re-elected.

Having said that, our government generally responded well to the first wave of the pandemic back in spring. A controversy quickly emerged over the lack of masks. Not only were stocks very low, but both the director-general of the Ministry of Health and the minister himself said several times that wearing a mask was pointless – a lie designed to stop people depriving medical staff of much-needed masks.

That error aside, the measures were largely well-judged and the French, contrary to stereotypes, behaved with great discipline. They respected the lockdown rules, and the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths fell sharply over the summer, even if our overall performance was much worse than in Germany (the country France loves to compare itself to).

On the other hand, we fared far better than the US. For once, many of my American friends have told me in recent weeks that they would rather be living in France, where ‘at least the government has a strategy’.

The economic measures taken at the start of the first wave were excellent. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire decided to protect businesses and employees by putting in place the world’s most ambitious furlough scheme and guaranteeing the banks 90% of the values of their loans to businesses. Although French GDP will fall about 10% this year, a sharp rise in unemployment and business failures has been avoided. Economists have also welcomed a fresh plan announced in September which provides €100 billion to reduce business taxes, make homes and public buildings Covid-secure and support the labour market.

The situation has been complicated by the arrival of a second wave of cases over the last few weeks. The public health response in particular has been a shambles. The government offered free tests for anyone who wanted one, a well-intentioned policy which led to Soviet-style queues at test centres. Waits of four or five days for a test, followed by a week for the results were commonplace, rendering the whole process as pointless as it was costly.

Worse still, the test-and-trace system has completely failed. For ideological reasons, the government refused to call on the services of Google or Microsoft. The ‘Stop Covid’ app was downloaded just 2.6 million times – compare that to the UK, whose app was downloaded 16 million times and Germany with 20 million.

That fiasco was the predictable result of a public health system which is very bureaucratic and gives little room for initiatives and innovation – a failing which is behind much of what has gone wrong during this crisis. We will have to take stock once things have returned to normal.

Thanks to this litany of policy failures, the government has now had to introduce a curfew from 9pm to 6am in most of our big cities in an attempt to arrest a spike in cases (currently running at 20,000 a day). Still, the polls suggest most voters are in favour of the decision, however difficult it may be, particularly for the young.

Be in no doubt, though – the economic consequences of another lockdown will be catastrophic. Restaurants, cinemas, venues, sports stadiums, taxis, Uber drivers and all manner of other businesses are all going to lose most, if not all, of their revenue – and the state is not in a position to compensate all of them.

The support offered so far has been limited and it looks like the economy is heading for a long, difficult period that will expose its structural weaknesses: an overbearing, expensive and overly bureaucratic state, a lack of innovation and not enough investment in cutting edge technology like digital, AI or robotics.

If France is to learn from this dreadful crisis, it must begin here, by reforming the state in an altogether more liberal direction.

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Nicolas Bouzou is a French economist and commentator.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.