After decades of neoliberal managerial politics leading to a dramatic reduction of the role and efficiency of the French welfare state, the covid-19 health crisis provides us with a crude illustration of the many effects of a dominant ideology that places society at the service of an ever-growing economy. The French confinement experience not only reveals the social benefits of welfare mechanisms. It also exposes the multiple failures and faults of policies that have progressively narrowed them to meet with countable and so-called “rationalization” requirements.
Since the covid-19 crisis hit France, we have seen millions of wage earners benefitting from the social security mechanism of “partial unemployment” (chômage partiel), thanks to which workers can apply for state benefits and keep most of their revenue during an economic crisis, while employers are banned from firing them. But we have also witnessed the results of managerial policies applied to national public services, resulting in increased workloads under degraded conditions in sectors that are now labelled as (and are indeed) “essential” to a society. Medical workers in the national hospitals (that still constitute the backbone of the French health system) are already exhausted by almost a month on the frontline. The internships of many student nurses (that usually take place every year in June and July) have been rescheduled to meet the needs in manpower and respond to the increased influx of patients suffering from covid-19. Not officially requisitioned, student nurses have been “mobilized” as auxiliary workers under the pretense of “educational continuity” and paid according to their status as trainees, that is €1.4/hour. On April 14th, 2020, a national petition denouncing conditions of “exploitation” addressed to French Health ministry had been signed by 56,600 persons.
We have also witnessed the effects of the restrictions of welfare mechanisms on the subaltern workers, mostly migrant (and often undocumented) laborers. On April 5th, a collective of social workers providing help and support to the residents of an unofficial shelter for Malian workers in Montreuil (east of Paris) underlined the potential disastrous effects of the collision of existing clusters of precariousness with the ongoing health crisis. For these workers, promiscuity and insalubrity (270 workers living in a 700 m² storehouse) remain the norm, and confinement in a safe home or household they don’t have, an impossibility. The fear of deportation adds to their vulnerability and to access to health services. All over France, many social workers and associations share growing concerns about the effects the current pandemic may have on these invisible workers.
In the light of the already measurable effects of the pandemic (and its future economic consequences) on the society and on the workers, the debate has started to shift back again to the political battlefield in the fourth week of confinement. After three weeks of news about the dissemination of the new coronavirus, about the ways to handle the crisis, and the adjustments workers made to adapt to unemployment and home-working, the question is now about what the “day after” would or should look like. Finding new grounds in the crisis to question the dominant ideology and the relevance of the policies implemented in the past years, the defenders of a fairer, greener, and more redistributive development model have started to raise their voices again. Thomas Piketty and others see in the crisis a critical juncture and the opportunity to elaborate a new “contrat social”. Rare are, nonetheless, the proposals that provide insights about the place of labor and the role of workers in such a “reinvented” society. The representatives of the French patronal organizations, however, seem to have a clear idea of the future awaiting French workers. In an interview to Le Figaro (April 10, 2020), the president of the Medef (Mouvement des entreprises de France) sketched out a rather clear path once the confinement is lifted: to assist the necessary recovery of the French economy, to help make up for the lost time and wealth (in other words to go back to normal as soon as possible and make profits again), workers will have, he hopes, to work more in order to create more wealth. Paid vacations, work time and labor regulations are seen as adjustment variables that should be relaxed to give the enterprises and the economy some fresh air. In other words, the French workers, who are already paying the price of an unprecedented health crisis, are expected to pay for its economic effects.
No one in the present circumstances can predict the long-term effects of the current crisis. Not sure, however, that the promise of “sweat and tears” (according to the translation by trade-unionists of the words pronounced by the president of the Medef) will not revive the social tensions that have been suddenly silenced by the confinement and the current “state of health emergency.” Before the coronavirus crisis outbreak, entire sectors had engaged for months in strikes and collective actions against reforms perceived as reducing the French welfare to its bare bones. French labor laws have been temporarily relaxed by the so called “Covid-19 ordinances” of March 2020 to face an unprecedented situation (these are explained by the American National Law Review). Most of them were redacted so as to protect the workers. Yet, on the judicial front, the ordinances have also led to possible situations of violations of fundamental rights, like the possibility to extend police custodies up to six months without being presented to a magistrate. Only when the economic emergency has succeeded the health emergency will we see whether French workers are offered a new social contract, or only sweat and tears.