PARIS — "I don't understand France. In Paris, I have to fill out a certificate to leave my home, and if I don't fill it out or fill it out incorrectly, I have to pay a fine. In Berlin, there's no document to fill out, no sanctions. I am treated like an adult. And this trust pays off, we have four times fewer deaths than you." My friend from Berlin divides her time between Germany and France. In this period of coronavirus, confined to Paris, her understanding of the country's famous "liberté, l'égalité, fraternité" (freedom, equality, fraternity) is fading. If the state treats its citizens like children, demanding documents to justify their whereabouts, which were only partially lifted as of May 11, why shouldn't they behave in a way that is all too often childish, playing cat and mouse with authority figures? In fact, the state's mistrust of its citizens is only equal to the citizens' mistrust of its leaders.
In Britain, a country hit even harder by the epidemic than France, my friends are surprised by the political and social climate on the other side of the Channel. "Why so much hatred? We have more deaths than you do, but while we are increasingly critical of our government's record, we still have respect, if not affection, for our ruling monarch," one friend said. "It is not good for symbolic power and real power to be embodied in one person."
There is also this distinction: "In Britain the forces of law and order are perceived as being at the service of citizens. In France you judge them to be above all at the service of the state."
The correspondent for a major Dutch newspaper in Paris put it this way: "On an emotional level, France is a police state. You are the most policed of the democratic nations."
In Persian Letters, philosopher Montesquieu painted an ironic and critical portrait of early 18th-century France. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is no need for an epistolary novel. It is our European neighbors who say it loud and clear.
A man with a shopping bag crosses a typically closed bridge connecting the Kleinblittersdorf in Saarland with the French Grosbliederstroff. — Photo: Oliver Dietze/DPA/ZUMA
In fact, the coronavirus crisis has given rise in Europe — deprived of sporting competitions for more than two months — to a comparative exercise, with each country measuring its performance in dealing with the health crisis against that of its neighbors. In Central and Eastern Europe, from Vienna to Warsaw via Budapest, there is a form of "Schadenfreude" toward the powerhouses of Europe, particularly France, since it's more difficult to criticize Germany. "You treat us like second-class Europeans," one said in Warsaw. "You look down on us, you give us regular lectures about democracy and freedom. But see for yourselves, our deaths number are in the hundreds, yours are in the thousands. When urgent measures have to be taken, such as the closure of our borders or the confinement of our citizens, we do not waste time, unlike you."
Even in southern Europe, criticism is emerging: from the assessment of the crisis in Greece and Portugal or on an even more emotional level, as in Italy. Almost two weeks before the start of the lockdown in France, one of my Italian friends, an internationally renowned economics professor, called me from Milan, where he lives. He had never been more emotional. "What is happening in our country is terrible," he told me, "and it will happen very quickly in your country. Don't waste time, you don't seem to have taken the right measures for the epidemic. It's as if, unconsciously, you are convinced that what is happening in Italy cannot happen to you. In your eyes, your state is so much better structured, your health service so much more superior!"
Why hasn't there been the French equivalent of Captain Tom?
It would be excessive, and probably unfair, to say that Europe is "taking its revenge" on a certain French arrogance. But there is some truth to the way Europeans look at us. Paradoxically, we are often too harsh on ourselves, but we behave toward critics from elsewhere, particularly Europe, like Cyrano de Bergerac. In the seminal 19th-century French play, de Bergerac, a nobleman in the French army, says at the end of the famous ode to a nose: "I take them from myself all in good part. But not from any other man that breathes!"
France has a taste for panache, Britain for greatness. Cyrano and Rostand on one side, Henry the V and Shakespeare on the other. In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, the UK found a hero in Captain Tom Moore. On the eve of his 100th birthday, this World War II veteran made a bet to raise 1,000 pounds ($1,230) to honor the British Health Service. He raised over 30 million ($36,903,750). On his birthday, he received nearly 150,000 greeting cards from all over the world.
In France why hasn't there been the equivalent of "Captain Tom," a hero who is the object of affection for the entire nation? Why has France — beyond praising health professionals — been too quick to shut itself down in systematic criticism? Admittedly, the authorities made a great many errors (both in action and communication) in managing the crisis. But no more (or less) than Britain, Italy or Spain.
In the face of illness, medical teams — who despite adversity, came together as a collective — resist better than others. What is true for doctors is also true for nations. In an ideal world, France would accept with greater humility the critical gaze of foreigners, and would moderate its own criticisms of power. In short, the opposite of Cyrano de Bergerac.
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