France Tries Next Extraordinary Human Experiment
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It took a moment of carelessness for plague to strike the French port city of Marseilles in 1720, despite an edifice of strict health measures. A boat carrying silks from the Ottoman Empire was allowed to skip the usual 40 days’ quarantine to unload its cargo, unleashing an epidemic that wiped out almost half the city’s population and which didn’t fully subside until two years later.
It’s this kind of fear that haunts France’s central planners today as they prepare to lift draconian stay-at-home measures designed to halt the (far less deadly) coronavirus. The lockdown has reached its limit: Public opinion is now against it. Isolation at home has saved more than 60,000 lives, but it has also cratered the economy and infantilized citizens by policing their movement, restricting the purchase of masks and nicotine patches, and banning daytime jogging in the city of Paris. The worry for the state is how to ease measures without triggering a second wave of infections.
Judging by the lockdown exit strategy unveiled this week, President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, both graduates of France's elite school for civil servants, are opting for meticulous caution. Starting May 11, and over several months, businesses, schools and entertainment venues will gradually reopen, with bars and restaurants shut until at least June and sporting events forbidden until September. Masks will have to be worn on public transport. Yet the real technocratic twist is that there will be not one plan but 101, one for each of the country’s administrative departments. Like a weather report, and based on criteria including the rate of infection and testing resources, each area will get a daily rating — green or red — that dictates its ability to lift restrictions.
The French seem to be going from one extraordinary human experiment to another. Ending Europe’s visa-free travel area between countries was one thing, but now the nation state is being carved up; Spain is also lifting lockdowns by region, while Italy’s restrictions were initially a local affair. Parisians, who’ve suffered a 74% rise in deaths year-on-year since the start of the crisis, will wonder if they’re even in the same country as Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast, whose department has actually seen the number of deaths dip. A red rating for a hard-hit area might mean shops or public spaces stay shut; being deemed green would allow parks and some schools to reopen. And the hardest part to stomach: Citizens living in red areas will be told not to travel to green ones. Americans and Germans may be used to divides in their federal system, but for the French it’s a total revolution.
Obviously there’s no telling how a fragmented, petri-dish society created by central planning will actually behave. When the lockdown was first introduced, more than 1 million people fled the Paris region for more pleasant pastures. Will “red” residents now make an irresponsible break for a “green” zone? It’s possible, just as hopes for a jump in economic activity in “green” areas and responsible following of rules in “red” ones may prove optimistic. Fear of the virus may keep people home even in newly reopened areas, while frustration at longer lockdowns elsewhere may incite rule dodging.
What’s encouraging is that, unlike the current lockdown, more responsibility is being placed in the hands of people and their local elected representatives. The omnipresent state has been both a curse and a blessing in this crisis, proving very adept at protecting jobs and companies but not so good at managing hospital resources, mask stockpiles or laboratory tests. Now the government is promising to ramp up the availability of masks, tests and contact tracing — the motto is now “protect, test, isolate” — while letting local mayors have more of a say in how to manage post-lockdown society. The French are being offered behavioral choices — such as whether to let their children attend school or whether to wear a mask outdoors — and not just the threat of a fine. (Though that’s still there for long trips of over 100 kilometers (62 miles).)
And as infantilizing as a color-coded France may be for those living in it, it also gives society a common goal to work toward — namely making the entire map green. Trying to keep people’s minds on responsible social distancing when the infection curve is ebbing isn’t easy. The virus’s urgency is fading, and health concerns are clearly no longer the sole be-all-and-end-all of policy (the French government is reopening schools against the advice of its medical team). What’s left is the carrot-and-stick approach: The more green on the map, the more freedoms are won back, and the less likely a second lockdown becomes. And if infections do flare again somewhere, there’s now a system in place to ratchet restrictions up locally first.
France knows it can’t afford another national lockdown — the social and economic costs would be unbearable. So it has effectively found 101 ways to extend the original one as far as it can go. Now the test is whether human behavior can dash the best-laid plans of technocrats.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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