The Test of Our Endurance

On Monday Parisian newspapers headlined a silent scream : Un An Sans Public. A year without an audience for culture workers of all kinds. Meanwhile this weekend les rives de la Seine were overflowing not with waves but with crowds of merrymakers, picnickers, strollers. The police are impuissant – detached, impotent. All over Paris, as you can see from the shot below, Social Distancing was nowhere in evidence. The natives, my dear, are restless. You can’t arrest an entire city.

In Belgium, businesses are going under at an alarming rate. Figures for France are no better. Stores and hotels are shuttered everywhere you look. In Holland, riots broke out in January over the imposition of a new confinement. Madrid, an anarchist friend laments, “is TOO open,” with theatres, movie houses and bars doing brisk business. He blames it on the “right wing, ex-Falange, all-business president” of the Comunidad Autonoma. Museums are reopening in Italy, while new lockdowns threaten. Someone will explain how that’s going to work. Two museums in France tried – in Perpignan, under a Rassemblement National mayor, and Issoudun, with a Socialist in charge – before the courts got in the way. (Musée Saint Roch in Issoudun remains closed provisoirement, temporarily. You can translate that, too hot for the judge to handle.) Our twice daily dip in the petri-dish underground is sanctioned but standing in front of a painting is not.

Covid is hollowing out our politics. Big issues have been swept aside – provisoirement. It’s all Covid all the time. Regional elections have just been delayed for three months. In Paris the political jockeying continues, to humorous effect. A junior minister at city hall argues for a short, sharp 3 week confinement, hoping that this places Paris at the avant garde of the Do Something battalion. Unfortunately for him the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, one eye on next year’s presidential race, promptly elbows him aside, declaring weekend confinements inhumane, essentially reducing people to the status of worker drones, a point made in the interview below. The terribly difficult, if not insurmountable, dilemma is how to make draconian confinements sound palatable and politically correct – in short, how to make them sound good for you. They aren’t, and people know it.

In Nice and Dunkirk, too near the beach for their own damn good, authorities have clamped down with weekend confinements. Result ? Much like Paris last spring, the citizens – those wayward rule-breakers who think with their feet (typicially on a gas pedal) – hit the highway Friday night to visit the countryside. Paris emptied out last spring, with somewhere between 20-30% of the population taking off. A dreamy experience, like waking up inside a contemporary Atget diorama, but better odd, once in a lifetime. Something counter-factual is happening. A woman on Twitter can’t get it straight. ‘We’re supposed to air out our houses five times a day but put on a mask as soon as we step outside ?’ (I paraphrase.)

A doctor in Bayonne, looking a hell of a lot healthier than anyone I know after the last year, thinks she’s right, and reminds people that tuberculosis patients used to be sent to the shore and the mountains to recover, and that wearing a mask when no one’s around is, well, maybe a bit paranoid.

Meanwhile a redhead musician pal, reduced to playing on bridges as long as night clubs are interdit, presses his finger in my chest and barks, ‘So I gotta starve to death to save you ?’ I’m not in that age group by a long shot but the Fenian Bud Powell has a point. (He only stopped urging me to kick off when he noticed the money people had pitched in his hat.)

So what’s the plan, who is all this for and could it be done differently?

Jean Quatremer is well known to readers of Libé, Liberation, the French newspaper founded in 1973 by Sartre and Maurice Clavel. Quatremer’s Les Coulisses de Bruxelles (The Hallways of Brussels) is a popular blog, especially for those looking for a different angle on the world, resistant to the fashions of the day. Quatremer, a lawyer by training, is a twitter fanatic, more reliable than my alarm clock.

In May of last year, a Belgian newspaper, La Libre, interviewed him for his take on the developing Covid response. What they got was a contrarian blast that left few countries standing. What did they expect? Quatremer, wherever you care to place him on the political spectrum, is a humanist, in the strict sense of caring about the effect of policy on living beings.

France right now teeters on the edge of another brutal confinement, its stores open and its economy limping, while Germans can only stare in the windows of shuttered stores. Politicians in each European country race far behind the virus, argue over vaccines and pray people put up with their straight-faced bungling. La Libre’s interview with Jean Quatremer appeared on 9 mai 2020, under the title Coronavirus : la démocratie, est-elle adaptée à la gestion des crises? Have things changed since then? You be the judge.

JQ : Confinement is in fact quarantine, a medieval measure invented in Raguse (now Dubrovnik) in 1383, and abandoned in the 20th century because it was a symbol of barbarism and ignorance. It’s extraordinary that it has made a return in the middle of the 21st century, during a time when we believe science and reason have triumphed. And what a return ! Confinement has been imposed in various degrees in entire countries and half the world has been restricted to their homes. An extreme and brutal measure which it is hard to understand because the Covid pandemie is absolutely not a new ‘Black Plague.’ Its level of mortality, even before confinement, remains definitely higher than the flu but in no way bears comparison to SARS or Ebola.

What is the origin of this ‘revival’ ? Not a democracy, but a totalitarian state, China. Europe and the rest of the world had other models at their disposal while the pandemie approached, in particular Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. But, with the panic, as the dead began to increase, it was the Chinese model that was imposed without the slightest democratic debate. Italy got things off to a roaring start on the 10 of March, provoking a vertiable domino effect in Europe, each one trying to outdo the other to show that they were protecting their population : Spain, France, Belgium, Austria and even Ireland followed suit. Only in Belgium was there an effort to debate this extreme measure but the NVA was soon back in the net in the name of a health emergency, with the French example inspiring, as always, local public politics.

(NVA : The New Flemish Alliance is a Flemish nationalistconservative political party in Belgium, founded in 2001. The NVA is a regionalist, separatist movement.)

JQ : This panic in the face of Coronavirus remains staggering. Everything has happened as if we were talking about an illness that threatened millions of lives, which even the worst forecasts have not envisaged. One really has the impression that people have come to the brutal realization that they’re mortal… Nevertheless, as Woody Allen put it, we’ve known ever since man has been around that, “Life is a sexually transmitted illness, with a 100% mortality rate.” 600,000 persons die every year in France.

With the Boomer population aging, we’re going to see a spike in mortality during the next ten years. And people aren’t dying just from age : every year in France, 150,000 are victims of cancer, without anyone dreaming of prohibiting tobacco or alcohol. At the same time, 68,000 die from respiratory ailments, 3,500 in car accidents, without counting seasonal flu which each year kills between 3 and 15,000 people, and sometimes much more, such as in 1969, when 31,000 died (in a French population of only 51 million) or 1959 (30,000 out of a population of 45 million).

Just the same, we could isolate regions or towns, since in France, for example, neither the western part of the country or the south have been touched in the same way as the Oise, Île de France or the Haut-Rhin regions. They haven’t even tried. Fear and panic seems to have obliterated reason with the result that we have provoked the gravest recession, outside of war time, in the last three centuries. Who is going to suffer ? The under-60s. This economic catastrophe is going to cause extreme suffering and death by the 10 thousands. Because, as we too frequently forget, unemployment kills (suicide, cancers, alcoholism, undetected illnesses due to lack of access to treatment.) In France, 14,000 deaths a year are attributed to this. The anticipated mass unemployment will weaken our government and thus our systems of public health, which augurs badly for the treatment of future pandemies. This debate on the economic consequences of total confinement, the cost-benefit approach, has sadly not taken place and we’ll pay dearly for it.

Is the Virus coming, going or just playing with us ? Prime Minister Castex promises ‘consultations’ while enforcing new confinements.

JQ : One can’t deny that the sense of individual responsibility varies widely from country to country, especially between countries with a Protestant tradition and those that are Catholic, to simplify things crudely. Germany believed that its citizens were grown up enough to protect themselves and did not adopt the French route of a brutal and authoritarian confinement, which allowed their economy to continue to function at 80% as compared with France at 60 %. Sweden has pursued the argument against authoritarian confinement to the furthest extreme. In reality, countries that have decided on a total confinement have treated their citizens like children incapable of managing themselves. Belgium is a particularly stunning case : while the central government has been weakened over the years by cultural conflict, it nevertheless reacted in an even more authoritarian manner than France when politicians finally grasped what was at stake. Even worse : the country passed from nothing to everything in a matter of days, without even a campaign of public information concerning ‘social distancing’, compared with France which tried, over the course of two weeks, to evoke a sense of individual responsibility.

La Libre Belgique : While you speak of the infantilisation of the population, how was it possible to do things differently ? You frequently mention the Nordic countries or Germany but aren’t you rehashing old clichés ?

JQ : If the French are infantilised by their state, they too are responsible because they have a childish rapport with their government. They expect everything from it, as one waited for the king to do everything, but they won’t accept being governed and constantly dream of replaying the Revolution. Our institutions have worsened the error : every five years we elect a Santa Claus, whom we grant full powers while waiting for him to deliver everything, and then, six months later, we want to cut off his head. Power has done nothing to improve this ontological rupture : it barricades itself inside the palace and watches the population of rebellious Gauls with suspicion. The formation of our elites doesn’t help at all : when you have never had contact with the real world because you went from Louis le Grand to ENA before taking your place in the army of the State all without ever leaving Paris, that hardly puts you in a postion to understand the Gilets Jaunes. This suspicion by the State in regard to its citizens is logically shown by the wartime measures that led to the adoption of confinement : the law of March 23 regarding the public health emergency simply suspended French democracy and the near-total of public freedoms (freedom to come and go, to meet, to undertake anything, to work, to have a normal family life, to have your case heard by a court and to be aided by a lawyer, etc.) has given full power to the government and the police. It is unprecedented, truly, since the times of Vichy.

(Louis le Grand, one of Paris’s elite high schools ; ENA, Ecole Nationale d’Administration.)

JQ : It is by no means by chance that, to justify this exceptional order of things, the head of state speaks of “war” against the coronavirus, not at all the way the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it in his very humane speech. It is staggering that citizens have consented without even raising the question of the loss of freedoms. Putting survival over all of our principles is an unprecedented regression. As René Cassin, the father of Declaration of Human Rights, put it, “The right to life, but not the right to just any life.” The philosopher André Comte-Sponville expressed it another way. “I’d rather catch Covid-19 in a democracy than not have it under a dictatorship.”

The result is clear : unlike Germany and the majority of the other European countries, France decided it was imperative to suspend the rule of law. On other matters, the government has just extended the prolongation of the State of Health Emergency until the end of July, with no one saying a word about ending it in the near term. The warlike announcements and exceptional laws which have dramatised the situation have also allowed the government to conceal the complete unpreparedness of the French State which completely botched its management of the pandemic. I don’t accuse Emmanuel Macron but the bureacratic apparatus, which revealed its impotence. With everyone aware of the red alert signal in February, the State ignored it instead of preparing people for what was coming, neither launching public announcements nor allocating materials necessary to combat the coming pandemic, or coordinating with their economic and social partners and the other European capitals.

No need to suspend civil liberties or to confine the whole country for this: why wasn’t the production of masks undertaken, the capacity of hospitals enlarged, the organisation of sick people being moved from one hospital to another when the first became overcrowded, the deployment of material to retirement homes, a lifting of restrictions on the production of material, etc. We have one of the biggest bureacracies in the great democracies, and one really can’t say they passed the test during this crisis. Its over-reaction is nothing more than panic in the face of failure.

The way we have collectively reacted to this health crisis recalls other periods of our history : states incapable of anticipation; panic fed by the media; false information or information manipulated by foreign powers; government agencies whose first reflex is to suspend liberties and to employ ineffective remedies; citizens who panic-shop and don’t hesitate to accuse neighbors, as in Bordeaux, where 70% of the calls to the Police were denunciations. It’s pathetic.

La Libre: Confinement will have an impact on people’s mental health.

JQ : And not only that ! The crisis we are plunging into is going to have serious consequences. The young who are just now entering the market are going to lose their jobs, the less skilled and those over 50 as well… We have decided to sacrifice the younger generations in order to save those who are over 80. Why not ? But this at least requires a debate. I’m 62 and I prefer to give a happy future to my children. If we are going to go into confinement every time a pandemic arrives, we’re going to return to the Middle Ages in terms of living standards.

Democracy has taken a terrible blow from which will be very hard to recover. We have seen this with the State of Emergency in France or the Patriot Act in the United States. There have been no attacks in American territory since 2001 and nevertheless the Act is still in effect and has even been considerably reinforced. Once a State has given itself extraordinary powers, it doesn’t let go of them short of a revolution.

Rachel Heller contributed to this report from Groningen, Holland. The story first appeared on


James Graham lives in France, where he sometimes assists Edouard Perrin in getting the news out about tax evasion and assorted financial skullduggery. (See the documentary Dans la peau d’un lanceur d’alerte.) His new novel is Rue des Cascades.