Into the Bunker
‘We voted this morning,’ an elderly neighbour told us on Sunday afternoon with a hint of reproach for our tardiness. We were walking up to our polling station to cast our votes in France’s municipal elections. Resident citizens of other EU countries are entitled to vote at municipals in France as well as elections to the European Parliament. I have dual citizenship so can still vote but in January, as the UK left Europe, British passport-holders were struck from the registers. Hundreds of British local councillors are now unable to run for office.
Unlike the mayoral ballot in London – postponed for a year because of Covid-19 – local elections in France have gone ahead in spite of the odds. Voters in our village had to bring their own pens to sign in and out. None of the returning officers wore gloves or masks but nobody milling in the polling station shook hands. In France this is tantamount to social amputation. You’re the last name on the roll, an official told me as I fumbled for my pen. The polling station in the village accommodates roughly 680 electors. The counter on the plexiglass ballot box was already at 280 when I cast my vote. At 40 per cent, turnout was slightly higher than the national average, with three or four hours to go before the polls shut.
By the end of the day it was clear that Covid-19 had struck the first round hard: fewer than half of France’s 48 million voters had cast a ballot. That was a record abstention for round one of local elections. It was also clear that the centre-right Republican Party and the Parti Socialiste, both obliterated in presidential and legislative elections three years ago, are still entrenched at a local level, holding on to several bastions.
The greens – Europe Ecologie Les Verts – have done far better than they’d hoped, leading the field in Lyon and chasing the centre-right list in Bordeaux, whose prosperous bourgeoisie is about as ecological as a dollop of foie gras, by 96 votes: many centre-right voters must have stayed at home. In Strasbourg and Grenoble, EELV also came in ahead of all the other contenders. Here and there Marine Le Pen’s lists have done well. In Perpignan, a Mediterranean town (pop. 130,000) midway between Barcelona and Montpellier, they won 70 per cent of the vote.
Macron’s party, La République en Marche, failed to take the cities. It was never expecting to do well in rural areas, hoping instead for a good showing among urban electorates. But LREM lists arrived in third place in Paris, Lille and Lyon, and fifth in Marseille, where abstention was higher than 60 per cent. In Le Havre, where Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, headed the list, a communist candidate came in second with nine percentage points between the two. The second round – when it happens – will be tense: a defeat for Philippe would be a symbolic blow against ‘la Macronie’ and leave the prime minister's future in doubt.
Macron’s first address on Covid-19 last Thursday, when he announced the closure of crèches, schools and universities, was authoritative, arguably a return to the president’s ‘Jupiterian’ mode: even the king of the gods must now remind us mortals to wash our hands. There would be massive funds to mitigate the human cost of lay-offs and partial unemployment; businesses could defer payment of taxes and social contributions. The ‘winter truce’, which forbids landlords to evict tenants between November and the end of March, is prolonged for two months. Up at the top of the speech, Macron insisted that it was impossible to put a price on health. By the end, he was extolling the virtues of the welfare state and arguing that certain goods and services ‘must be placed beyond the laws of the market’. In a glancing blow at globalisation, he identified a ‘model’ with ‘great flaws’: it was ‘madness’ to delegate the nation’s basic needs – food, ‘protection’ (a reminder that he regards Nato as ‘brain-dead’) and health – to others.
A performance of this order might have served LREM better at the polls than it did, but local elections are by no means at the mercy of party politics. And besides, a market-liberal leopard does not become a spotless defender of social provision overnight: the administration has been stalking the ‘French model’ through the jungles of republican bureaucracy since Macron assumed office in 2017, turning the SNCF into the equivalent of a public limited company, fiddling with the pensions system, and lately with unemployment benefit. As for the ills of globalisation – for which the virus is now a powerful and dangerous metonym – few people will have forgotten that Sarkozy, president at the time of the financial crisis, took a similar line when he addressed the nation in 2008. ‘A particular notion of globalisation is over,’ he said, ‘along with the end of finance capitalism, which imposed its logic on the entire economy and helped to distort it.’ Not many believed him.
Macron spoke again on Monday evening. His tone was more sombre; the time had come for a ‘general mobilisation’. ‘We are at war,’ he kept repeating. For most people, it turns out, the struggle will unfold without a trace of the martial virtues: these will be left to first-responders, medics and carers. The rest of us would simply have to crawl into the bunker and remain there ‘for at least 15 days’, effective from Tuesday noon, in the knowledge that the enemy, in Macron’s words, is ever-present, ‘invisible, elusive, making progress’. It isn’t inappropriate or tasteless to recall that in Camus, too, the plague ‘never ceased progressing’ or that it had ‘a characteristically jerky but unfaltering stride’.
The president also announced in his second address that the local elections are now on hold. This means that wherever the vote has been decisive, with no need of a second round – i.e. the vast majority of communes – the results will be valid. But a date for round two, for the few that are still in contention, is anybody’s guess (Philippe has suggested 21 June). The controversial legislation on pension reform, due to be debated next month in the upper chamber, is also in abeyance. New rules for unemployment benefit, tending to penalise seasonal and short-contract workers who are out of a job, will not come into force in April as planned. These were difficult calls for Macron: he was determined that the elections should go ahead; in spite of his praise for public provision in a time of crisis, he remains committed to reshaping key parts of the welfare system.
Our son came back on indefinite leave on Monday, with his school closed and orders to sit a mock exam at home even though his real exams are now unlikely to take place three weeks from now. The simulation of the simulation, a six-hour stint, was reduced for the occasion to five. It kept him ensconced in his bedroom while I went to buy bread. At the bakery it was business as usual though I couldn’t resist a few extra loaves for the freezer. There was a long, anxious queue outside the nearby pharmacy, where the staff were staggering customers, presumably to keep numbers at the counter low.
I’d noticed before I left the house that we were running low on cat food. And maybe a few more tins of tomatoes wouldn’t go amiss. Come to think of it, I might find a rare packet of pasta in the supermarket. I’m not in a panic, I assured myself as I headed for Intermarché: it’s just a simulation of the simulation. I’m puzzled to discover from friends in the UK that toilet roll is the object of choice for British panic buyers. Where we live, it’s pasta and rice. Unlike their French counterparts, anxious British shoppers seem to Europeans to have the dialectic of incorporation and evacuation arse over tip or, as Marx said more politely, standing on its head. The ethnography of crisis consumerism will be fascinating once the pandemic passes. For the moment, each community’s identification of its basic needs depends on the extent of contamination. At the time of writing there are roughly 7000 identified cases of Covid 19 in France, compared to around 2000 in the UK. In Italy the figure has passed 30,000. It seems to be largely a matter of time, which is why the situation is so insidious, however sanguine one tries to remain.
On the dot of noon yesterday, we received text messages from the government telling us to observe the 'strict rules' laid down by the president of the republic. To leave our house, we now have to travel with a form, which we’ve downloaded from the government website. We’ve already printed off ten. For each outing we must fill in a copy, identifying ourselves and explaining why we’ve ventured into public space: shopping for clothes is no longer OK; buying basics from authorised outlets is fine; taking exercise – walking, jogging – is admissible, but gyms are out; going to a bar would be unacceptable, but in any case the bars are shut; working when you can’t function usefully from home is permissible; it’s fine to visit an elderly relative or a doctor, or baby-sit for your daughter. You will not be sanctioned if the police find you walking your dog, provided you’ve printed off the form and ticked the right box. In the cities they are already patrolling empty public spaces from vagabond incursions.