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The French: 67 million presidents of the Republic

By Jean François Coustillière, member of the JFC Conseil analysis group


We are assailed daily with information, especially on television and on "a-social" networks, through programmes "giving the French a voice", or denouncing the negligence of decision-makers. This propensity, which leads us to believe that only the Covid-19 virus is worthy of interest in world affairs, is at the same time anxiety-provoking, reductive and misleading.
Faced with this situation, the seriousness of which I feel through the telephone exchanges or e-mails that come back to me, I have tried to gather certain observations that seem to me to be able to put things into perspective, even if like everyone else I fear the prospects that I see for our future, particularly in the socio-economic field.



Jean-François Coustillière (photo : F.Dubessy)
Jean-François Coustillière (photo : F.Dubessy)
SPECIAL DOSSIER COVID-19. General De Gaulle, who had both experience and vision in this field, was reputed to have asked himself the following questions: "How do you want to govern a country where there are 258 varieties of cheese?". It is true that he had been forced, more often than not, to confront the versatility of our people as well as their extreme dispersion of opinion. Each crisis was accompanied by confrontations of clear-cut and definitive points of view which, observed in retrospect, were more a reflection of opposition to the individual than the defence of alternatives that were beneficial to the nation.

Today, we can see that one of the greatest difficulties encountered in the fight against the coronavirus is the willingness of a significant part of our population to comply with the containment obligations. Everything is good to escape from it: fleeing to less controlled regions, cheating on individual declaration forms, a taste for jogging, the particularities of each person's situation, the defence of the right to move, the defence of individual liberties etc. Even the traditionally most disciplined people find excuses to occasionally escape constraints. You certainly have many examples around you.

Of course, these measures imposed on us are felt differently depending on whether or not we have a pleasant living environment, depending on whether we live in a densely populated urban setting or in a more airy residential or rural environment. The rebellion against coercion is then fuelled by the feeling of a new injustice and swells the ranks of the critics of power specifically in densely populated or disadvantaged areas.
I fear that when Paris police prefect Didier Lallemend declared, admittedly clumsily and inappropriately, on 3 April, that "those who are in intensive care are those who have not respected confinement", he did so on the basis of largely well-founded information, even if this generalisation is certainly excessive. The concern thus expressed by this senior official, no doubt inappropriate, nevertheless reflects his concern that the directives are too often not respected. He is well placed to assess the situation.
 

"Show modesty and caution"

In spite of the many mistakes made, no doubt, on the eve and then during the rise of this epidemic, the authorities in power, enlightened by scientific advice, have endeavoured to respond to the demands of this crisis through economic provisions, social safeguards, health measures, provisions affecting everyday life, improved and dedicated communication, cross-political approaches and others. It has even been able to reverse decisions after reassessing the situation (use of masks, containment, deconfinement). All of this is imperfect, may be insufficient, and sometimes it is probably ill-adapted. We can see that other Western countries, including the largest and most advanced, are not doing much better. The future will tell where mistakes have been made.

On the other hand, what is unbearable is to note how much the media, especially television and the "a-social" networks 1, try to amplify contradictory information from the government and its scientific advice, under the pretext of "giving everyone a voice", but with the main concern to feed criticism and the "buzz" 2 with the sole aim of increasing their audience 3.

Public opinion is thus shaped by television debates and "a-social" networks where, without any confirmed competence, everyone asserts contradictory truths: chloroquine, masks, forms of propagation, risks, stopcovid application and, of course, denunciations of those responsible treated, without proof, all the names of birds. Each speaker most often represents only himself and only has the skills he attributes to himself, without even mentioning the total lack of experience of these individuals in terms of the complex decisions to be applied to the population of a nation. These decisions are unfortunately, or fortunately, dependent on medical, social, political and also economic aspects. This is not, of course, to call for the restriction of the right to express oneself that is peculiar to democracies, but only to underline its instrumentalization by some at the expense of the interests of all.
 
Every French person is too often convinced of a "y a ka faut qu'on" concocted in his or her living room with knowledge limited to daily life and nourished by his or her usual sources of information.
On the contrary, it would be better to be more modest and prudent. The prescribed rules, such as confinement or barrier gestures, must be applied with courage, while it is important to control one's own anxiety so as not to contaminate one's loved ones.

Weak powers without vision

The French: 67 million presidents of the Republic
But there is no denying that the leadership of this country has been weak and short-sighted for decades. No doubt this destitution is partly the consequence of what has just been denounced. But not only ... Since when has there not been a definition of a project, priorities and objectives for our country? The programmes endeavour to provide organised technical guidance so that each voter can find something to his or her liking. De Gaulle and no doubt Mitterrand, whether one adheres to their convictions or not, had real visions of what they wanted to do for our country. They had set their strategy with its guidelines and priorities. But the others ...
Jean Pierre Chevènement reminds us in the Figaro of 8 April that, in fact, from 1945 to 1974, France was able to turn the tide by relying on its strategic State and its own forces in the fields of aeronautics, nuclear power, railways, etc. 4

Since the end of the "Glorious Thirty", the country has settled into a situation of negligent comfort, ignoring reality. Each difficulty was solved by calling on financing which only increased the deficit as shown in this table.

 

Nor was there any hesitation in acting on the defence budget, a convenient variable because not only were the consequences not visible at the end of an electoral term (7 then 5 years), but above all because the personnel concerned were deprived of any expression of protest. This unfortunately led to certain savings that were detrimental either to the security of the men on operation (example of Afghanistan) or to capacity (sacrifice of the second aircraft carrier). The table below, describing the reduction in the nation's defence effort, is illustrative of this trend.

The French: 67 million presidents of the Republic

Choices outside electoral mandates

Other decisions, purely managerial and without any assessment of the social and safety impacts, can also be recalled:
  •     The national police lost 7,000 real jobs, including students, between the end of 2007 (149,881 FTE) and the end of 2012 (142,945 FTE) according to a National Assembly report dated 9 October 2014 with the effects that were observed during the social movements of 2019 5 ;
  •     In 2016, as part of the recovery of public finances, hospitals were asked in 2016 to make savings of 3 billion euros in three years, from 2015 to 2017 6. The Covid 19 pandemic showed how disastrous the consequences of this choice were;
  •     Tax evasion is evaluated by a Senate report 7 at nearly 50 billion euros, compared to the national education budget of the time, i.e. 68 billion in 2017, or to the deficit of the whole public administration for that same year, i.e. 61.4 billion. There it is the absence of a voluntarist and determined decision during too many years that it is advisable to highlight.
     
As the consequences of these choices most often fall outside the scope of electoral mandates, such as those of decisions on health matters, they are only exceptionally attributable to the decision-makers of the moment.
Thus, in the absence of a medium-term strategic orientation, this propensity to increase the deficit or to overburden budgets with medium- or long-term effects becomes a habit, a routine, second nature...
But it is obvious that this irresponsible behaviour cannot be adopted forever. It should be remembered that in 2007, the head of government François Fillon tried to alert the French people by saying that he was "at the head of a State that is financially bankrupt "8.

The political function should not be confined to a managerial approach

Even if it is easier not to respond to the silent demands of the armed forces or to those of professionals who, despite their complaints, carry out their duties with devotion and abnegation, such as health personnel, firemen or policemen, than to oppose other professionals who do not hesitate to use blackmail very quickly by taking the French hostage, it is not possible to imagine prolonging these decades of renunciations, collapses, retreats and abdications.

Let us hope that this crisis will lead us to understand that the political function should not be confined to a managerial approach whose priority would be in an electoral demagogy to perpetuate a status, but in the choice of a medium-term strategy courageously displayed and conducted with no less courage in being concerned about the future of our Nation. Solutions exist to encourage this approach both during elections and during stocktaking exercises.

 
In conclusion, our country is difficult to govern. It is a matter that has been known and heard for many decades. However, confrontation with the choice of democracy and the consequences of inevitable globalisation must not lead to renunciation, populism, demagogy and collapse, even if this may appear to be the simplest path in the short term. We need courageous and determined political leaders who are able to propose priorities and a strategy. They will make it possible to transform this country of "67 million Presidents of the Republic" into a Nation behind the President whom the people have elected, with, of course, the permanent possibility of asking him to change his decisions, and whom they can thank after five years. The aftermath of the pandemic will distinguish the nations capable of this leap from the others.

1- "a-social" networks, see Réseaux (a)sociaux by Jérôme Colombain, journalist at France Info: "Behind the charming façade of thousands of friends and little blue thumbs are actually hiding scourges that we have unfortunately allowed to take hold: hatred, exploitation of personal data, false news, cybercrime and addiction. »
 
2- The false statements on C8 on April 8 are particularly illustrative of this attitude. https://www.lefigaro.fr/medias/deconfinement-le-csa-va-se-pencher-sur-la-fausse-revelation-d-hanouna-20200408
 
3- Others fortunately denounce it, such as Pascal Praud who, during the show "L'heure des pros" on April 6th, 2020, addressing the investigative journalist Elise Lucet of "Cash Investigation", affirmed: "Real populism is to attack the elites permanently. Real populism is to attack those who govern permanently (...) And it is instrumentalized, let's say it, sometimes in the media".

4- https://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/politique/jean-pierre-chevenement-il-faut-un-gouvernement-de-salut-public-20200408

5- Interview RMC-BFM 27 Oct 2016 - When Mr. Jean-Jacques Bourdin asked Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy "You have eliminated 12,469 gendarmerie and police posts between 2007 and 2012, do you regret it", the right-wing primary candidate answered "no". "We were overwhelmed by debts and deficits, we had to make savings (...) we had to reduce the number of staff in the civil service," he explained,

6- Figaro 29 March 2016 - Within the framework of the public finance recovery plan, the government, via the Minister of Health, has even set the objective of eliminating 10% of the surgical and medical beds currently available, bringing the cut to be made to nearly 16,000.

7- Report by Mr Éric Bocquet, made on behalf of the Senate's Commission of Inquiry into Capital Evasion No. 673 Volume I (2011-2012) - 17 July 2012

8- 21 Sep 2007 - François Fillon "I'm at the head of a State that is financially bankrupt, I'm at the head of a State that has been in chronic deficit for 15 years, I'm at the head of a State that has never voted a balanced budget for 25 years, it can't last".

Jean François Coustillière, member of the JFC Conseil analysis group


Tuesday, April 21st 2020



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