Letter from a Comrade in France

Hi Loren,

You asked me whether the strength of the current protest movement against France’s “health pass” is above all attributable to anti-statist sentiment. Before I respond, here is some background, along with a few significant facts and figures.

The law of August 5 requires anyone who wants to take a plane or high-speed train, attend a concert or sports event with more than 50 people, go to a museum, a café or restaurant—even in outdoor seating areas—or a large shopping mall to show proof on a smartphone or paper that he or she is either fully vaccinated, has tested negative on a pcr or antigen test less than 72 hours earlier, or has recovered from covid-19 more than 7 days and less than 6 months before. The law also requires healthcare staff and firemen to be fully vaccinated; those who aren’t can be suspended without pay. The rule was subsequently extended to a variety of jobs involving contact with the public. The whole arrangement was immediately decried as a vaccine mandate in disguise.

Attendance numbers at the Saturday demonstrations nationwide (at least those provided by the authorities and media, probably understated) went from 114,000 on July 17 to 161,000 on July 24, just prior to the Senate vote on the health pass. On that date, there were more than 200 rallies, with most of the largest turnouts in southern France, and to a lesser extent in Brittany. In proportion to the population, the movement has drawn only small crowds in Paris and Lyon. August 7 has for now been the high-water mark, with 237,000 demonstrators across the country. Since then, attendance has leveled off, though in Toulouse, the crowd was once again larger on August 28 than on the previous Saturdays. The official figures were 121,000 demonstrators nationwide on September 11, and by October 9 they were down to just over 45,000.

At the July 31 gathering in Montpellier, a group of demonstrators threatened a pharmacy offering free antigen tests. They denounced the pharmacist as a murderer, “collaborator” (the French resistance and the roundup of Jews during the war have become a staple reference for protestors), and a sellout to Macron who has blood on his hands. Next, in the night of August 5–6, the premises of the Ordre des Infirmiers (the official nurses’ association) in Toulouse were vandalized, with slogans painted on the walls such as “No to the pass” and “Long live the strike” (of healthcare workers called by the sud and cgt unions. (Initially formed out of ten unaffiliated unions in 1981, eventually to be joined by other dissident unions, sud is a smallish, left-wing trade union federation mainly present in the public sector, with a sizable Trotskyist component.) Finally, over the weekend of August 14–15, at least three vaccination centers, including one near where I live, were broken into. At one in the Toulouse area, close to 3,500 vaccine doses were destroyed, while computer equipment and the vaccination cubicles were trashed. Though these actions may involve only a tiny minority of the people demonstrating, they point to the strength of the movement’s militantly anti-vax wing. Meanwhile, a very small minority of refuseniks among healthcare workers have been suspended (c. 0.7 percent of the total according to the government), or have convinced sympathetic doctors to put them on sick leave for burnout. Still others have attempted, and in some cases managed, to get phony vaccination certificates drawn up.

Returning now to your suggestion that traditional anti-statism is driving the movement in France, that would certainly be the straightforward answer, but a number of recent events have added to existing distrust of the State. One was the Mediator affair, in which France’s Servier pharmaceutical company caused the death of maybe 2,000 people with a drug whose amphetamine properties they had concealed. And that wasn’t the only drug-related outrage in recent years, including the international contaminated hemophilia blood products affair.

Then came the endless series of attempts at “reform”—which of course means reducing the overall direct and indirect wage bill and making it easier to get rid of workers. For years now, every French government has tried to chip away at the protection that people enjoy here, and though they’ve made some progress, this is still one of the least inegalitarian advanced countries once you take transfer payments into account.

That brings us to the Yellow Vest movement. You’ll recall that to Emmanuel Todd, the French have historically an infinitely greater commitment to equality than the Americans or the British do. The Yellow Vest movement also showed how much of a reference the French Revolution still is for large swathes of the population. There again, having translated Jacques Wajnsztejn’s writings on the movement in Temps critiques, you’re familiar with that line of argument. See “A Yellow Costume That Creates Community,” “The Envy of the French Revolution of the Yellow Vests,” “Yellow Vests on the Edge,” “What Can Remain From the Yellow Vests,” and “The Gilets Jaunes, an Analyser of the Reproduction of Capitalist Social Relations.”

When the pandemic first hit, I was struck by the knee-jerk nature of the reactions I saw on the left. True, the government lied over and over to cover up its lack of preparedness, the budget cuts that had left hospitals barely able to cope even before covid-19, and so on. But to be honest, I expected Macron & Co. to react more the way Trump did, pooh-poohing people’s concerns so that business could go on as usual (a consideration that played a role in Sweden’s decision to avoid lockdowns—a point apparently overlooked by fans of the Swedish model). That, indeed, would have been a very good reason to take to the streets in protest. Instead, they locked down the country. Given the first indications they had from Italy, this essentially boiled down to sacrificing young people and frontline workers in order to save the lives of the elderly (and the obese, I might add).

So part of the protest response came from people who, as in Figeac where I live (a population center with about 10,000 inhabitants in an otherwise rural area, but “blessed” with two large factories producing aircraft components), were pissed off because they couldn’t sustain the never-ending festive atmosphere they’ve gotten hooked on—sort of a countercultural version of the hedonism so popular with European youth today. I should also point out that there has been considerable urban flight to quieter, lovelier, less expensive parts of the country where such a lifestyle is much easier to maintain (especially in a place like Figeac, where a combination of financing from local industry and decades of Socialist Party rule has created a semi-Scandinavian welfare State “in one city”). From the start, the protestors emphasized the need to party, to congregate, to smile, to sing joyful songs, and therefore to go around unmasked. “The epidemic isn’t nearly as bad as they claim, covid-19 is a convenient excuse to keep us from getting together and challenging the system, masks are pointless, or a way to muzzle us, it’s not up to us to protect others”—I was treated to all this and more, not to mention a poster that read, “Laissons la nature travailler” (“Let nature do its job”) and another one, supposedly a humorous takeoff on the signs in doctor’s offices listing helpful hints on how to keep the pandemic at bay, that ended with the words, “Tous ensemble, renonçons à la vie pour protéger les plus fragiles d’entre nous” (“Together, let’s agree to stop living in order to protect the vulnerable”). If you were wondering when you might find some updated version of left-wing Nietzscheism, it looks like we’ve located it.

To be fair, that isn’t all there is to the movement, and there are legitimate objections to be made to the imposition of such stringent requirements. The authoritarian practices of French government grate on people even in normal times in a country with a strong anti-authoritarian tradition, so you can imagine how they’re received in a period of stress and turmoil. Add to that the existing (and understandable) hostility to Macron as a person, and you get a clearer idea of what’s motivating protestors. There are also sensible comrades who feel that not enough has been done to provide cheap, non-dangerous remedies and preventive treatment to the population, both for covid-19 and in general. Vaccine hesitancy/refusal is particularly widespread among nurses and nurse’s aides, who rightly feel that they have already been called on to do more than their share of the heavy lifting. Lastly, the overall degree of distrust of political, media, medical and other institutions has increased dramatically over the years in France.

An aside: Did life get worse for the non-privileged part of society since the first lockdown? According to Louis Maurin, the head of l’Observatoire des Inégalités, the damage was largely contained through lavish government spending. A minority of people did get the short end of the stick, mainly undeclared workers, temps, and above all about one third of the self-employed. But together, these account for a small portion of the population. The others experienced no net loss of income. Bear in mind that 19.3 million adults aren’t part of the workforce (e.g., housewives and the retired) and their allocations were paid as before. Also, the country’s 5.4 million public servants all continued to get their paychecks. So we’re quite far from the kind of crisis that traditional Marxism counted on to trigger mass revolt. And the recent surge in consumer spending corroborates this.

There were admittedly grounds, at least at first, for being wary of novel vaccines developed in record time. However, the evidence so far—at the time of writing (October 13), more than 6.57 billion doses have been administered worldwide, including a large proportion of messenger rna vaccines—suggests that the short-term risks are negligible, and from what I’ve heard and read, the danger of genetic changes brought about by genetic vaccines isn’t an issue either. But when your starting-point is that you can’t trust the system (not a bad outlook, either), then you tend to demand incontrovertible proof. A friend here, sort of a post-Situ, merely says, “I don’t feel like serving as a guinea-pig.” It doesn’t occur to her that she could alternatively view vaccine acceptance as a way to take part in a grandiose collective experiment geared to saving the lives of your fellow human beings. Oddly enough, the few voices on the French left that give greater weight to solidarity and collective responsibility than to individual freedom (or to blanket rejection of anything said or done by the government) are to be found in rather traditional groups like the Fédération anarchiste, Mouvement communiste, Union communiste libertaire, and Lutte ouvrière. These last two organizations have called for waiving patents so that vaccines can be widely produced and distributed around the world. I agree, and would add that a further advantage, from our political perspective, is that this would represent a limited but real attack on capitalist property.

In any case, though the turnout at demonstrations may seem impressive, the vast majority of the population is clearly adopting a pragmatic, non-ideological approach. Since people wanted to enjoy the summer, going to restaurants, concerts and other public events, they were willing to get vaccinated if that’s what’s required. I say this without any contempt for consumerism. As Georges Brassens so aptly put it in the song Mourir pour des idées (“Die for Ideas”) : “La vie est à peu près leur seul luxe ici-bas” (“Life is just about our only luxury in this world”). According to an opinion poll by the paper Les Echos and Institut Montaigne, whose results were released on August 4, 61 percent of the people surveyed are in favor of a vaccine mandate for adults and teenagers. Support for the anti-pass movement is highest among manual workers (51 percent) and craftspeople and shopkeepers (53 percent). By political persuasion, 56 percent of left-wing France Insoumise voters and 54 percent of voters for Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Rassemblement National show sympathy for the protestors, while the figures are lower elsewhere. So there is definitely continuity with the Yellow Vest movement from a sociological, geographical, and political standpoint.

None of this, of course, goes very far below the surface of what’s taking place, so let me take a tentative stab at explaining it. Way back when, Jerry Rubin once said, “The issue is not the issue.” Well, that might be the case here as well. Dissatisfaction has been building over the years in France, fueled by a sense of social and economic stagnation or regression (real enough for a minority of people, and possibly on the horizon for many others). I also believe that the decline of traditional left-wing ideology, practice, and influence has created a feeling of “orphanhood” that some try to counter by taking part in demonstrations. This reflects in my view an abiding psychological need to be against the system, and to feel you’re part of a movement (or community). Here again, I say this without disdain, especially since I feel a similar need; I’m merely trying to capture the general mood.

Second, as readers of Insurgent Notes would no doubt agree, capitalist development continues to have disastrous psychological and cultural consequences (e.g., lack of a moral compass, little sense of purpose in life, atomization, and more recently anxiety over ecological devastation).

Third, the much-touted individual freedom supposedly offered by contemporary society is to a large extent an optical illusion, and many people confusedly sense as much. After all, the French are dependent today on national education, health coverage and retirement plans, complex rail, highway, and air transportation networks, credit cards and the like, all of it centrally coordinated by sophisticated digital technology. In addition to the disturbing potential for surveillance, that technology seems to be destroying what little was left of traditional privacy. This might explain the extraordinary importance taken on in recent years by health and diet, viewed as the last remaining spheres in which you can still express and experience individual autonomy. You may recall, as I do, the indifferent or even contemptuous attitude of French people to anything remotely related to these issues forty years ago. Well, at the Toulouse demonstration on August 28, one sign read, “Pass ton chemin, mon corps m’appartient” (an untranslatable pun on the term for health pass that roughly means “Shove off—my body belongs to me”). A similar motivation presumably underlies the tremendous value attached to child-rearing and the protection of children, as evidenced by demonstration signs and banners. That assumption is also substantiated by the large number of families in attendance, many of whom had apparently never been to a demonstration before.

What makes the present situation so difficult to assess is that the movement has drawn an extremely heterogeneous crowd. (Bear in mind that the various parties are already gearing up for the presidential election in April 2022.) It spans far-right groups (often obsessed with Jewish influence, the nefarious Bill Gates, and more), the militant left, advocates of alternative medicine, opponents of genetically modified crops and the omnipresence of technology and science, former Yellow Vest activists, defenders of civil liberties, and a murky “Save the children” current. Furthermore, a 2018 survey found that the country already had just about the highest rate of vaccine hesitancy or rejection in the world (though as the latest figures suggest, most people here have gotten vaccinated, whether willingly or unwillingly). But unlike the United States, a close competitor for the title, France still provides a large social safety net which, according to some observers, has given the State a quasi-“maternal” role that ultimately generates rage, since people feel they are being treated like children who can’t decide for themselves. Here again, the yearning for an elusive individual autonomy figures prominently. And the whole thing is accompanied by ritual condemnation of “the system,” equated in large part with surveillance, control, and the abuse of power for its own sake.

Critics eager to discredit the movement tend to cite the alarming presence of the far right at rallies, but that doesn’t seem to me to be the main problem. In a number of cities, left-wing groups have either called their own, separate demonstrations or challenged and even clashed with right-wing forces. The real issue in my eyes is what the non–right wing segments of the movement are advocating. The top slogan is “Liberty,” which as a German friend aptly pointed out has long served as a rallying cry for the right in Germany (“Freedom, not socialism!”), coupled with cries against “health dictatorship” and calls for “disobedience.” Next in line is the assertion that the government and medical authorities are lying, or that the “real” (presumably covered-up) pandemic figures show that there was no need to panic after all. Then, of course, denunciations of the huge profits made by drug companies on vaccines give an anti-corporate veneer to the movement (though in reality, drug companies derive around 3 percent of their profits from vaccines, which explains why they have done so little to develop them over the years). Semi-feminist slogans even get thrown in for good measure (echoes of “Our bodies, ourselves”). And of course, no protest movement here would be complete without compulsive references to the anti-Nazi resistance (including by right-wing groups!) and to persecution of the Jews. Not only do you see stars of David on some demonstrators’ jackets and signs, but the argument most often put forward against the health pass is that it divides the citizenry into two categories, harking back to “the darkest hours of our history.” (At one rally in Germany against lockdowns, comic relief was provided by “Jana from Kassel,” who after introducing herself in Alcoholics Anonymous style, stressed her admiration for and new-found identification with Sophie Scholl, who was guillotined along with her brother for distributing an anti-war leaflet at the University of Munich in 1943. One can only marvel at the “heroism” shown by Jana and her fellow demonstrators.)

In a word, it’s hard to shake off the suspicion that we’re dealing here with a new incarnation of “the socialism of fools.” Though some participants in the movement may have discussed the crucial issue of what they or anyone else should be doing to ensure mutual assistance and protection of the more vulnerable members of society, the news hasn’t reached my ears so far (though since I first wrote these lines, an encouraging exception has been brought to my attention). In the few conversations I’ve had with anti-pass activists, they seem genuinely caught off guard by any suggestion that solidarity and collective responsibility might be more important in some cases than freedom of choice. Or, for that matter, that even if you quadruple the number of intensive-care beds and hospital staff (in and of itself a legitimate demand), you’re still providing only curative rather than preventive healthcare (for example, vaccines).

The question, then, is whether saying “black” every time the government says “white” amounts to anything more than self-indulgence and self-satisfaction, or blowing off steam. Though the issues will probably become clearer as time goes on, for the time being, my own feeling is that I don’t fit in at the weekly demonstrations and other actions being staged, however critical I am of the government’s latest policies. In the course of discussions with friends and comrades over the past two months, I’ve fortunately found that I’m not the only one to see things this way. But on the local level, and possibly well beyond, I sense that I’m out of step with broader left-wing opinion.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Randall,

    left-populist/anti-authoritarian Covid-19 view:
    (and see comment by voza0db under it)

  2. I read with much interest Larry’s testimony and analysis. I agree with most of what he said, except two things : 1) the memories of the French Revolution. This is an old theme of the Temps critiques journal and already in 2005 they wanted to paint in red the movement against the European constitutional treaty which led to a united front between the Left, the Far Left and the National Front in the ballot boxes and did not have any other result than the fake “No Victory”. Temps critiques tends to repeat what Marx wrote in the 19th century about the exceptional political sensibility of French workers or “people”. Well since the Paris Commune, I tend to think this has a bit disappeared, to say the least. But you can’t take away illusions from some comrades, especially when they are encouraged by comrades in other countries who, whenever 20 people burn 10 cars somewhere in France, anxiously write French comrades to ask if the French Revolution is starting again. Having had this kind of message through the phone and now through emails for 50 years I tend to be a bit skeptical about French radical exceptionalism from a left point of view.
    2) as regards “anti-statism” all depends what you mean by that word. Under the Weimer Republic the Nazis were also strongly against the German State and tried to overthrow it. This kind of anti-statism which corresponds to the rage felt by all the exploited and also the rage of the petty bourgeoisie in front of a deep economic crisis, a natural disaster, a pandemic, etc., is much more directed against the government in power, the head of this government than against the State. The Thai dictatorship is facing this kind of rage now for example and although there are marvelously courageous people in the streets facing violent repression and jail sentences I would not call that an anti-statist movement. And the Thai regime is much more repressive than any French government has been since WW2. Therefore the word the “system” used by the National Front but also a good part of the left, does not designate the State as a target but just the government in place. And in fact all the persons I know who are anti-state in France as well as in Italy (I mean against the present government) are also in favour of a very strong and powerful state which should guarantee them good hospitals, good roads and motorways, good trains and public transports, good schools and universities. Today the National Front/Rassemblement National is much closer to the old CP program that wanted to expand the State more than it was 20 years ago. And the yellow vests did not want the destruction of the State or the limitation of its essential power (they were not in favor of defunding the police, the armed forces or stopping nuclear energy managed by the State), they just wanted a benevolent state towards their needs: less taxes maybe but still good heath and education systems. We are very far in France from what seems to be much more accepted in the US: the idea that each local town or State should decide how to use the taxes and give the minimum of money to the big central state. So what all these movements want is a benevolent State which satisfies all their needs. So I should not call that anti-statism; at least from my poor knowledge of English it seems to me to be too much radical for what it describes.
    Anyway thanks Larry for your article!

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