France Faces an Existential Crisis
Once hailed the future of the Fifth Republic for he promised to reform France’s stalling economy and reclaim some of the nation’s long lost ‘shine’, French President Emmanuel Macron is now being compared to the notorious Marechal Petain – the man who sold France to the Nazis back in the late 1930s. Some protesters to his new ‘pandemic rules’ have gone as far as to compare him to Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of the President’s fall from grace. A dark chapter in France’s history, WW2 still rings with shame and disgrace across the nation.
A much hated figure of France’s history books for he relinquished much of the Republic’s territory to the German despite his former military prowess in Verdun during the First World War, the Marechal shamed the nation by volunteering its Jewish population to the slaughter in exchange for political favours. Rather than fight the German invaders, Petain not only chose to kneel to Berlin, he also relinquished France’s republican values to fascism – forever associating his name to the horrors of nazism.
If France has always had a taste for a strong Executive – at times flirting with despotism in the name of political efficiency, fascism is profoundly contrary to France’s historical socio-political narrative. For President Macron to have his name slapped next to those of Petain and Hitler signals a deep crisis; one which runs far deeper than a simple political dispute. France ‘s very republican institutions and one could argue its very national integrity stand in the balance.
Battered by 18 months of imposed isolation and unprecedented restrictions on basic civil liberties – such as that of free movement, freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate, the French no longer trust the man they not too long ago entrusted with their collective future. The new enemy of the Republic … in France where it is the people who are the depositary of ‘power’, Macron is a tyrant who overstepped the bounds of the tolerable.
In truth France has endured too many health scandals over the decades for anyone to be complacent. According to a recent survey by the Odoxa polling group and Le Figaro newspaper, 58 percent of the French population are sceptical of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 33 percent of people in the UK and 41 percent in the US.
Bruised by a health scandal which hit in the 1990s and involved government officials, the French have indeed genuine questions. In 1991, the government was found to have knowingly administered transfusions with contaminated blood from people who were HIV positive to at least 1,200 haemophiliacs, which led to hundreds of deaths.
French government officials had initially said they were not aware the blood was contaminated. Three ministers, including former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, were charged with manslaughter. Only one was found guilty and received no sentence.
Ever since, the public has met the government’s claims on public health with much skepticism … understandably so!
Determined … or so he claims to manage the new covid variant Macron announced earlier this July that he aimed to achieve a 100% vaccination rate by year’s end – a goal which not only implies forced vaccination but provision for systemic discrimination.
“If we do not act today, the number of cases will continue to increase,” he said.
Vaccination will become mandatory for all health workers. Macron urged them to be inoculated by September 15, after which they could face potential sanctions or fines. Vaccination is a “matter of individual responsibility … but also a matter of our freedom”, the president added.
France’s President wishes not to advise but to order all to comply, obey and bow to the will of his Office in complete contradiction to the principles which underpins it.
In true French fashion and in a move which has cut across political demographics, protesters took to the streets of cities throughout the country, united in their rejection of what they perceive as an existential crisis.
“We are not arguing the vaccine, we are arguing our right to choose and the government’s constitutional duty NOT to discriminate against its own people on account of the pandemic,” said Laurence, a protester in Toulouse.
In Paris, one demonstrator’s blouse read “No to compulsory vaccination, freedom violated!”, while another’s placard said: “Macron, no to the health dictatorship.”
Dangling the proverbial financial carrott, Macron is promising that the road to recovery runs through a vaccination centre. And while many will be those who choose to get inoculated, true freedom requires that we accept those who will choose to abstain.
“This summer will be a summer of economic recovery,” Macron stated in his address,, adding that the ‘health passport’ – a QR code or certificate proving that the holder has a negative Covid-19 test, is fully vaccinated or recently recovered from Covid-19 – will be required throughout different establishments in France from August, including bars, restaurants, cafés and shopping centres.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal lamented the “absolutely abject comparisons” of vaccine rules to Nazi atrocities, urging other political leaders to speak out.
Attal later stressed the need for vaccinations despite some increasingly radical pockets of resistance.
“We are in a fourth wave,” he said after a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, just before a bill goes to parliament to make vaccination passes to access public spaces, including restaurants, obligatory. “We won’t cede to a dictatorship of images and outrageous words,” the government spokesman added in reference to the anti-vaccination protesters.
If it is unlikely protesters will force a reversal, today Covid has become the new rationale of despotism, it is rather clear however that France’s malaise towards the ‘new normal’ will ultimately shape the future of the Republic.
If for every action one should expect equal reaction, Macron may soon find that the violence his government is raining on its citizens in the name of public safety could soon meet its match by way of a resistance movement.
Catherine Shakdam is a research fellow at the Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements. She is the author of A Tale of Grand Resistance: Yemen, the Wahhabi and the House of Saud. She writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.