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Geopolitics

France's Coronavirus Dilemma: Shut Down Like Italy Or Sangfroid?

French officials seem to want to avoid Italy's example of shutting down large parts of the country — and economy. But at what risk?

Empty shelves in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, France
Empty shelves in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, France
Cécile Cornudet

-Analysis-

PARIS — AsItaly puts one-quarter of its population on lockdown, and the World Health Organization welcomes the move as "courageous and bold," our Cartesian minds can easily understand the situation: it is serious, one reacts strongly. This may seem normal, but is incredibly complicated across the border if its French neighbor might decide to react differently. Like playing the oboe next to a bass drum.

On this side of the Alps, the public authorities rely so heavily on the medical experts, who are the first ones hinting that it might be going too far. Beware of psychosis, says Professor Juvin on a France 5 television program. "Everything that prevents people from living, from shopping, and therefore blocks the economy is far more harmful than the epidemic itself," says Doctor François Bricaire, an expert of infectious diseases. "The economy is also about health." Yet the reverse also remains true.

Strong measures, panic, a paralyzed country: the public authorities who have seen the shelves emptied in supermarkets want to prevent such a spiral of behavior. Especially when we know "that crises act as amplifiers of society's divides," says Chloé Morin, analyst with the public survey company Ipsos. "It is the most economically fragile who will suffer the consequences of a communication that would block the economy."

Blocking the virus without blocking the economy is the current challenge. In other words, finding a "happy medium," even if that notion has disappeared from public debate. In addition to its healthcare responses, the executive emphasizes the economy: cash support for small and medium businesses, activating the "force majeure" clause for those working with the public sector to avoid liability, even at the risk of being subject to further pressure in favor of budgetary generosity.

The situation presents Italy as an anti-model, ​even if diplomacy prevents us from saying so.

Faced with the virus, the administration of President Emanuel Macron is looking to put its "pragmatism" on display, an approach that can be interpreted differently according to local situations, even creating misunderstandings and hour-by-hour management of the epidemic. There are two concerns. We must allow the circulation of medical personnel and products for the care of those most ill, and we must avoid the kind of collective panic that would plunge the country into recession.

The situation presents Italy as an anti-model, even if diplomacy prevents us from saying so. It pushes the administration to delay the announcement of stage 3, the term having become synonymous with an unknown leap. "We must not make a mountain of it," says Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud, noting immediately that this stage would be followed by stage 4, which is an improvement to the public health situation. In other words, there is life after stage 3. Now more than ever: politics is psychology.


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