Letter from France: The problems still with us, and the electorate

18 Jan 2022

Many of last year’s problems are still with us. Omicron has replaced or, is in the process of, replacing Delta but for the moment France has not locked down nor closed the frontiers. Relations between the UK and France have worsened considerably. The arrangement between the US, Australia, and the UK (a coalition of losers if ever I saw one, as a senior French official said) to equip Australia with nuclear submarines and to rip up the contract with France to supply diesel-powered (did you say diesel?) submarines, did not go over well but comforted the impression here that Albion is as perfide as ever. British efforts to change the Brexit withdrawal agreement have led many here to question what the UK understands by a treaty. French inflation at 2.6% is higher than it was but is still lower than the average in the EU. But good news or bad news, one thing that I have learned after 45 years in France, is that the French will just say, “Ça ne peut pas continuer comme ça!” (It can’t go on like this!).

Fishing

After a testy exchange of letters and summoning of ambassadors the fishing license drama seems to be drawing to a close as, reluctantly, more licenses are being given to French fishermen. The UK licenses are held by foreign companies and rich UK nationals and the fish is mainly sold in Europe, so letting a few go to the French who have long fished in those waters will not help the “little British fishermen” who were supposed to be saved by Brexit. But for the moment the Channel Islands will not be cut off from their French electricity.

Covid

The Economist suggested a year ago that France needed a “nudge” to step up vaccination. Some subtle incentive was in order.

But Macron waited and then, in an address to the French on 12 July 2021 on television, took a different approach. He announced that to take a coffee even on the terrace of a café you would need to produce a “pass sanitaire”. Only those who were fully vaccinated and had this pass, or had a negative test result, would be allowed into cinemas, sports stadiums, restaurants, bars, or on long-distance trains and flights. Employees in such places would also need the pass, a QR code, or face suspension. Vaccination became compulsory for health-care workers. This was a big gamble. It risked dividing the country, and even provoking a national uprising. In fact, it was not a nudge but rather, un coup de pied au cul (a kick in the rear end).

Within a few hours one million people had signed up for a Covid injection. In the next month, when the French are usually lying on the beach, nearly 10m extra people got a first injection. But, there was an outcry. Politicians of all stripes denounced the measure. Each Saturday throughout the summer, up to 240,000 demonstrators took to the streets. These demonstrations seemed to be based on a perverse notion of liberty. The “Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789” which should, presumably, be better known in France than elsewhere, says clearly (in translation):

Article 4. “Liberty consists in being able to do everything that does not harm others: what does harm others can only be determined by law”.

The demonstrations in France suggested that liberty is simply the freedom to do what you want, independently of the consequences for you or others. I would not like to test that idea by driving to Fontainebleau on the left side of the road. But, despite the protests, the French accept that the law puts bounds on that liberty and, worryingly for libertarians, accept them, rather than lose access to the pleasures of life. The controversy proved short-lived. By the end of August, 77% of the French told a poll they approved of the pass for travel, and 64% did for access to restaurants and bars. Only 34% supported the anti-pass demonstrations. By 1 December, 75.4% of the population were fully vaccinated. This figure is now higher than in America, Britain, and Germany. Furthermore, access to a booster will now be available to everyone above 18 and those who do not have one will have their pass sanitaire cancelled.

Migration

This has become a central issue in France’s upcoming presidential election. The loss of 27 lives in a Channel crossing provoked predictable political reactions. But, migration is a feature of human life. While it can be stifled or restricted it cannot be stopped. This problem has worsened the relationship between the UK and France. The UK says that France should stop people from making the journey. But, stricter controls on lorries and on trains has made people turn to little boats. The authorities in France and the UK blame the criminal organisations that exploit the desperate migrants by offering crossings. Good political material but not backed up by the UK’s own analysis.

Hours after the tragedy, the National Crime Agency confirmed it was witnessing “self-facilitation” by asylum seekers, who were buying boats to make the crossing. To underline the lack of criminality, it said “migrants were working informally together without OCG [organised criminal groups] involvement”.

The official figures are that 37,562 applications for asylum were made over the 12 months up to September 2021, hardly overwhelming. Compared to EU countries, the UK ranked 14th in terms of the number of asylum applications per capita. In 2021, 63% of applications for asylum or protection in the UK were granted at the initial decision stage and half of the refusals to grant the request were overturned. This tells us clearly that, legally, the people in question satisfied the criteria for refugee or protected status and were not just the idle scroungers that they were portrayed to be. Rather than “militarizing” border monitoring it would be better to provide an avenue to asylum seekers and then decide how legitimate their claims were. But this does not, we are told, appeal to the electorate.

On that somewhat pessimistic note I will conclude, but with the hope that 2022 will bring us more positive news, after all ça ne peut pas continuer comme ça.

Alan Kirman, 2 December 2021