‘At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words to silence.’ Albert Camus, The Plague.
Faced with Covid-19, France has not yet reached that moment of silence when one gets hardened to the truth. Rhetoric still has the upper hand as President Macron’s address to the nation on Monday night revealed. Repeating six times that France was at war with the virus and that consequently she had to move to a state of quarantine, he studiously eschewed the French word confinement, which is the state France finally moved to at 12 noon on 17 March, following in Italy and Spain’s ghostly footsteps. All states have and will make mistakes in dealing with the epidemic. But in France, the beginning of the pestilence has seen French rhetoric contribute to the ‘collective blindness’ of the nation, to adopt the words of a recent Le Figaro editorial. And I am bound to say, despite my love and admiration for France as a nation and people, it is a blindness tinged with arrogance from too much lesson-giving that has settled on France’s countenance.
First, at the end of January, the health minister assessed the risk of France being infected as ‘practically nil’ because, as the saying went, France had one of the best health services in the world. Then when Italy took drastic measures to halt the propagation, France evinced a sniffy superiority towards her Latin neighbour redolent of her age-old and self-proclaimed status as ‘eldest daughter of the Church’, who always knows best.
As the epidemic spread and France quickly moved towards the top of the infected nations’ league table, last week she chose to take the Italian route of closing schools and universities.