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What explains France’s Covid chauvinism?

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It’s that old Covid chauvinism again. France is in denial about the severity of its new pandemic flare up and possibly a second wave. French news bulletins, but also supposedly authoritative newspapers like Le Monde, have concentrated on how badly things are going elsewhere. In the last few days, Spain was singled out as having reached a new peak of around 3000 positive tests in the previous 24 hours, Britain had hit a similar number. Few mention that France’s numbers were way above that. What is behind this diversionary tactic?

To put it bluntly, as I explained in The Spectator on 5 May, Covid statistics are just international politics by other means. Is mere unconscious bias to blame for French media reports regularly avoiding comparisons of their own far greater number of positive Covid test numbers with other states? 

For over a week, France has averaged around 7000 positive tests per day; on one day this week, it hit 8,500, with positivity rates, hospitalisations and deaths rising exponentially. Yet French media are happy to highlight more favourable comparisons, such as total Covid deaths, where France fares better on the ‘official’ figures at least. The media know that French statistics under-report Covid deaths because official numbers exclude deaths in the home, unlike UK agencies for instance. The official explanation is the time taken for the various state agencies to compute the death certificates filled out largely by GPs in paper format. 

The last update was on 24 August, when France’s national institute for health and medical research, INSERM, totalled a minimum of 1800 Covid deaths at home, but only for the period 1 March to 31 May. But even these three-month old numbers have not been included in state-run Santé Publique France’s daily totals, because they are deemed provisional, despite that organisation saying months ago that it would include them. As a consequence French ‘official’ total deaths internationally – as recorded by the benchmark Johns Hopkins University Covid tracker used by the world’s media – stuck at around 30,500 for months giving France a favourable position in international league tables.

Covid chauvinism is, of course, a feature of most states, from statistics to vaccine development. The more a state aspires to global rank the greater the chauvinism. But what lies behind France’s Covid chauvinism? It operates at two levels: political and societal.

It is political at the level of the executive where the 2022 presidential election campaign that will decide president Macron’s future is clearly underway. And Covid management is going to be a feature whether the pandemic is over by then or not. On 14 June, Macron kicked off the match with a presidential address in which he – to the surprise of many – praised the government’s handling of the crisis earning the full-page mocking headline in the French daily Libération, 'Macron congratulates Macron'. 

Last weekend, Marine Le Pen all but officially announced her candidacy in what will be a re-run of the 2017 presidential race. She castigated her future opponent for lamentable management of the epidemic – in terms that will be familiar to a British audience: a multitude of U-turns on everything from masks to quarantine. Just to keep the political pot and Covid chauvinism boiling there will be senatorial and regional elections in the coming six months.

At the societal level, from the man on the Clichy omnibus to the media – whatever the political colouring – there is a renewed longing to believe that somehow France is still what is best. French media are key sponsors of this, quite unlike their UK counterparts. From the age of 10, having shared my life between the UK and France socially, educationally, professionally, culturally, with bouts working for the French state and government, I have always been aware of a mild, playful chauvinism. But today I confess never to having seen it suffuse the nation quite so dolefully from adolescent to pensioner.

It is said that nationalism flares as a nation senses its decline. Declinism has been a French staple for a couple of decades as France struggles with globalisation. But it is intensifying as fears of international declassification and de-ranking torment the French more than other nations. General de Gaulle began his memoirs: ‘France is not really herself unless in the front rank.’ French media, especially radio and television, clutch at straws, headlining disproportionately – albeit touchingly – the smallest French success in sport, commerce, culture. Adverts highlight the French origin of products. The Franco-British vaccine hopeful GlaxoSmithKline–Sanofi becomes Sanofi, ergo French; the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is Anglo-Swedish when leading and British when faltering.

According to legend Nicolas Chauvin – a soldier brutally wounded in the Napoleonic wars – clung desperately to his belief in the messianic mission of Imperial France long after Napoleon’s passing critical of all else, even to his own personal cost. Conscious of how much the French have to be proud of in all walks of life, this Francophile believes they do not need to go to such lengths to maintain the flame.

It’s that old Covid chauvinism again. France is in denial about the severity of its new pandemic flare up and possibly a second wave. French news bulletins, but also supposedly authoritative newspapers like Le Monde

To put it bluntly, as I explained in

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Written byJohn Keiger

John Keiger is a professor of French history and former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.