“It’s Obscene for Macron to Call Health Workers ‘Heroes’ After Showing Them Such Contempt”

Danièle Obono

Low testing rates and the undersupply of masks for hospital staff highlight the weakness of the French government’s reaction to COVID-19. As Danièle Obono MP tells Jacobin, Emmanuel Macron’s administration has based its response on the resources left after years of cuts — not on what the health system actually needs.

Doctors wear protective gear in a military hospital established to take coronavirus (COVID-19) patients on March 27, 2020 on Mulhouse, France. Veronique de Viguerie / Getty

Interview by
David Broder

Addressing the nation on March 12, it sounded rather like Emmanuel Macron wanted to assert his loyalty to the French welfare state. Even after a months-long fight over pensions, the president insisted that, in a time of crisis, the state would provide for all. Yet since then, the government response has been distinctly underwhelming. While authorities have ordered citizens to stay at home, even many nonessential workers are still having to head into work. And there are growing signs that austerity-hit hospitals are struggling to cope with the number of patients.

Earlier this week, a study for online magazine Mediapart showed the systematic flaws in the government’s public-health response — from the lack of resources to the misinformation it has used to cover its tracks. In particular, Macron’s administration has failed to procure anything like the required numbers of FFP2 and FFP3 protective masks. Rather than openly acknowledge the shortfall, health minister Olivier Véran has muddied the waters — swinging erratically between denying the need for such protection and insisting that the government has, in fact, built up sufficient stocks.

For Danièle Obono, an MP for La France Insoumise, such a response is unsurprising, given the government’s record of undermining the French social model. She argues that the response has been determined not by what the pandemic actually demands, but rather by what resources and personnel numbers are still left after years of neoliberal reforms. Obono spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the government’s failure to roll out mass testing, its reliance on “law-and-order” rhetoric, and the lack of support for workers’ incomes.

David Broder

On March 21, you and your La France Insoumise colleagues voted against the government’s state of emergency bill. You proposed amendments like an emergency hospital funding plan, as well as guarantees for the salaries of workers who have been put out of work — but they were rejected. Why do you think that was?

Danièle Obono

The government has recognized that there is a crisis situation, but it remains trapped in a neoliberal logic based on individual choice and the need for “undistorted” market competition. Its state of emergency is conceived in the same way.

We, too, recognize the need for people to stay at home, to deal with the public health situation. But if you want the population’s participation in a shutdown that will stop the virus spreading, then they need to be told what is going on and be sure that their rights are going to be upheld.

That’s not what the government’s done. For instance, its bill increases working time up to sixty hours a week. Of course, in this situation, it may be necessary to run longer shifts in some sectors, for instance in factories making masks. We need to mobilize — and support — people in key jobs, even as others are shut down. But the response should also be based on recruitment and discussion with workers about their needs, not just an authoritarian imposition of extra hours for all. Indeed, this bill also allows employers to declare that workers are using up their paid holidays by spending time at home in confinement. That’s completely unacceptable.

This is also a question of who is paying for this crisis. Despite its authoritarian decision in increasing working hours, the government has refused to reinstitute ISF (the Solidarity Tax on Wealth, abolished at the start of Macron’s presidency) to fund recruitment of key workers, or to abandon other unjust flat taxes. Louis Vuitton CEO Bernard Arnault, France’s wealthiest person, has offered to help out. But coming from a well-known tax evader, it looks like a publicity stunt to avoid being held accountable for his own selfish dealings. We are not begging for charity. But tax evasion costs public services €80–100 billion a year, so we demanded that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. Every person with the means to pay should be doing so, rather than just insisting workers make more sacrifices.

Through the state of emergency, the prime minister and the health minister have granted themselves extraordinary powers, while undermining parliamentary oversight — the state of emergency is now to be reviewed once a month, not every twelve days, as in 2015. Yet precisely what’s missing in all this is a planned response, a package of emergency measures that upholds social and democratic principles.

David Broder

It seems that there’s a contradiction between strong law-and-order rhetoric in terms of making people stay at home in their free time, even though the government doesn’t want to shut nonessential workplaces . . .

Danièle Obono

Yes. For example, while construction workers have said they do not want to go onto the sites, the labor minister insisted that they wouldn’t receive unemployment compensation. So, they have to keep turning up. It’s one thing to tell people to stay at home, but incomes haven’t been guaranteed, and workers are still having to go to work — which also has obvious public health implications.

What we should be doing is making sure that nonessential workers can afford to stay home. That requires putting rents on hold and getting rid of extra costs such as bank charges. We’ve also proposed measures like food distribution for those who can’t go out, like elderly and disabled people. Those services have existed in the past, but they’ve been shut down. Equally, we need a planned response for those for whom home is not a safe haven, faced with domestic violence, and for prisoners, who are at a high risk of being infected. Some people coming up for parole have been released, but only sporadically.

The response we’re seeing from the government heaps the burden of responsibility on individuals. Indeed, the text passed by the National Assembly included a last-minute amendment, not discussed in any parliamentary commission, which massively increases the fines on people who break the orders to stay at home.

In practice, this looks highly discriminatory. There have been violent incidents of police assaulting people, especially in the quartiers populaires (working-class neighborhoods with larger ethnic-minority populations). This has been accompanied by a whole discourse that paints the “undisciplined” popular classes as irresponsible and the source of the problem — and, of course, not the wealthier Parisians who may help spread the virus by leaving the capital for their second homes.

David Broder

In a question in the National Assembly on March 24, you insisted on the need for a mass testing program, but health minister Olivier Véran hasn’t followed this approach. Why do you think that is?

Danièle Obono

Clearly, many elements need to be put together for such a planned response — one that isolates those most at risk of propagating the virus. In Germany, China, and South Korea, the mass-testing strategy allowed for a rapid confirmation of who was infected. We, too, need more testing kits, the platforms for mass testing, and to make up for the lack of provision by requisitioning private labs. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening.

We had an example of this logic already when the government said that masks weren’t necessary — only for it to transpire that there was a production shortage. This is putting things the wrong way around. The government is adapting the response to the limited means that are left after years of neoliberal “reforms” — rather than making the means available to respond to what this crisis actually demands.

My France Insoumise parliamentary colleague Caroline Fiat, a health assistant by profession, is part of the health reserve and has now gone back to the front line. She has kept us aware of this situation. Indeed, for over a year, emergency room workers have been staging strikes to protest hospital conditions, and the shortages of staff and supplies have also been highlighted by those who work supporting the elderly.

Even Agnès Buzyn — who left her role as health minister in February to run as Macron’s candidate for mayor of Paris — says that she had warned for months of a grave lack of resources in hospitals. The whole logic has been continued austerity, with shortages of staff and resources, and wages lower than other OECD countries. So it’s obscene to hear the government now praising these “heroes,” after they have shown them such contempt. Indeed, other indispensable workers, like cleaners, are still being overlooked entirely.

Faced with this crisis, we need a common response, we need mobilization, we need solidarity, yes. But it’s not enough to call for “national unity” and claim we’re “fighting a war,” when, even recently, these same hospital staff have been beaten up and tear-gassed by police on picket lines and protests against the pension reform. We need to seek consent and agreement, not just to invoke “national unity” to silence criticism of the government.

David Broder

You mention Macron’s tributes to hospital staff, and, indeed, it’s notable that he has made a rhetorical shift toward a defense of the French welfare state. In Regards, Bernard Marx noted an interesting parallel with 2008, when then-president Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed the “end of a financial capitalism that had perverted the economy,” but, in fact, immediately moved to save this same order. Do you think Macron will use this crisis to change course — or to revive his presidency?

Danièle Obono

The government response for several days has shown that they are trying to use old recipes to deal with this crisis. Since the beginning of his presidency, Emmanuel Macron has claimed to be all things to all people. But there’s no reason to believe that he can offer the response this moment demands. Indeed, while there is a popular desire to help out in this crisis — people are asking to be mobilized! — what’s missing is the political will.

The crisis caused by coronavirus has its roots in what went before — the undermining of hospital resources, of research, of workers’ protections. It has to do with what was going on just a few weeks ago, when lab staff mobilized to oppose Macron’s “reforms.” Workers who were being criticized then for their special pension plans are now showing how essential they really are. There are even health researchers who say they had to abandon projects that could have helped in this situation, because of cuts.

So, today’s situation is also about what came before. And the “world after” this crisis starts with what we do now. When France Insoumise speak of a planned response, we mean that also in terms of what our society prioritizes — including our planet. We don’t want the resumption of economic activity to mean overconsumption and using up even more resources.

I think working people have a good sense of what we really need and what is expendable — but the government clearly doesn’t. When we talk about how to deal with the health care and economic crisis, that also means changing the way that we conceive of economic necessity. That means putting our health, our housing, our essential needs first.