French police, during the pandemic, have been ordered to avoid going into no-go zones. The government might have feared that if an incident occurred, riots could break out. On April 19, a young man riding a motorcycle at high speed hit the door of a police car near a sensitive zone in a suburb of Paris and was injured: for days, throughout the country, buildings and cars were burned. Pictured: A rioter shoots fireworks at police in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, in the northern suburbs of Paris, on April 20, 2020. (Photo by Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic in the northern hemisphere seems starting to subside -- perhaps just temporarily.
Many journalists wonder if Italy, one of the eight countries most affected in Western Europe, will leave the EU. Another country of concern is France -- not in great shape.
Although France spends a significant amount on its healthcare (8.6% of France's GDP), the pandemic there has been frighteningly mismanaged. There was a tragic shortage of intensive-care beds: 5,000 for the whole country, compared to Germany's 28,000. There was also, until the end of April, a near-total lack of masks and protective equipment for hospital doctors and caregivers. Further, there was the great lack of an ability to test for the coronavirus. The situation led the government to decide on one of the strictest general lockdowns in Europe. For eight weeks, the French economy, like others, effectively stopped. The results were devastating.
France, before the pandemic, was already in an alarming economic state. For several years, the country's economic growth rate had been barely above zero; the country's central bank had lowered its growth forecast for 2020 to 1.1%. France's unemployment rate was high (8.1%); it had not fallen below 8% for two decades. France was, in addition, paralyzed from any kind of growth by a proliferation of regulations and an omnipresent bureaucracy. The Index of Economic Freedom, published each year by the Heritage Foundation, ranks France number 64 , behind the United Kingdom (7), the Netherlands (14), Germany (27), and far behind formerly communist countries such as Poland (46), Romania (42), Bulgaria (37) or the Czech Republic (23).
France has now entered a deep recession. Economists anticipate that growth at the end of 2020 will be minus 8%. By comparison, the figure given for Germany is minus 6.3%. Many economists seem unsure if, in 2021, growth in France will resume at all. They say the country's rigidities are such that for the country fully to recover, it could take a decade. Although the French government has not published any recent statistics on unemployment, commentators say that one out of two persons working in the private sector is now unemployed. Worse, as a large number of small and medium businesses have gone bankrupt during the pandemic, there is virtually no hope of seeing millions of jobs quickly recreated. Although the French government also has not published any recent statistics on poverty, an increase in unemployment is bound to go hand-in-hand with an increase in poverty.
Before the pandemic, taxes and public spending, the highest in the developed world, also further paralyzed France's economy. The overall tax burden equaled 48.4% of the country's GDP; government spending amounted to 56.5% of the country's GDP. The country's budget deficit was at least 3% a year. To cover its spending, the government, had to borrow; so the country's debt continued to rise. In 2019, it reached 100% of GDP.
During the pandemic, like the governments of other European countries affected, the French government injected tens of billions of euros into the economy, but could rely only partly on the European Central Bank: it remains bound by drastic rules that limit its ability for quantitative easing. France consequently went further into debt; its obligations now are even greater. Financiers estimate that its debt, which has increased by at least 15%, will reach 130% in 2021. The French government cannot increase taxes unless it intends to go from recession to depression, and is unlikely to lower public spending during a time of increased poverty and extremely high unemployment.
France's situation is all the more untenable in that for decades it has been a country of high immigration. France has accepted hundreds of thousands of newcomers -- on average, 400,000 migrants annually. Most have no marketable skills and rely on welfare indefinitely. Among people living on social benefits, the proportion of first-generation immigrants is more than 20% -- double the rest of the population. Even if the French government decided to put an abrupt end to immigration, the weight of unskilled immigrants already present in the country would not disappear.
A crucial factor for the country's future, largely overlooked since the pandemic, is that most of the immigration in France since the 1960s has come from the Muslim world: France is now the European country with the largest number of Muslims in its population. Some estimates were that they consisted of around or 6 million people: 8.8% of the population of roughly 67 million. Other estimates spoke of 10% of the total population, or 6.7 million people. In addition, available data show that the birthrate in Muslim families is higher than in non-Muslim families, further adding to the social and economic impact of the mass-migration. Demographers project that by 2050, the Muslim population in France will double, or possibly increase even more.
Before the pandemic, integrating Muslims into the general population did not seem to be working particularly well. In a survey conducted for the Institute Montaigne in 2016, 29% of French Muslims questioned said that, "Islamic law (sharia) is more important than the law of the Republic"; 65% said that women should wear an Islamic veil and that women who do not wear one are "immodest", and 24% said that modest women should wear the niqab, a veil that also covers the face. The figures for responders under the age of 25 were even higher.
No one is imagining that integration will suddenly work better, and the lack of it has visible effects. Muslim populations are increasingly living apart from the rest of the population. In Muslim neighborhoods, for instance, the lockdown was not respected at all. When journalists asked Muslims why they did not pay attention to the pandemic, they replied that Allah was protecting them and that the sickness only affected infidels.
In the 1980s, districts now officially regarded as "sensitive areas" (zones urbaines sensibles, or "no-go zones") barely existed. Twenty years later, they have become areas where French laws rarely apply. In 2002, the author Georges Bensoussan, defined these areas in his book as The Lost Territories of the Republic. Three years later, the "lost territories" rose up in protest for three weeks and France seemed on the brink of a civil war. Calm returned only thanks to imams to whom the government ceded power. The government told them that the police would no longer intervene where Muslim populations live. In 2017, when Bensoussan published A Submitted France, he said that now the entire country was affected.
There are presently 751 sensitive zones in France. There, gangs reign and the law that is enforced is the law of Islam, sharia. Most of the non-Muslim residents have gone. Doctors enter these areas only under escort. During the last decade, several perpetrators of the jihadist attacks that struck France -- and left 263 dead and many more wounded -- came from these districts. More than 150 mosques there are run by radical imams who incite hatred without the slightest murmur.
Some recent books show that perhaps an exhilarating feeling of supremacy combined with a desire for widespread submission to Islam might be at work. Bernard Rougier, a professor at the University of Paris who recently published a book, The Territories Conquered by Islamism, notes that "Islamist ideologues are doing in France what they did in the Maghreb 30 years ago". Many infiltrate political parties, various associations and sports clubs; make demands and intimidate; gain influence and are finally given their way. The lost territories of the republic, he says, are now "territories ruled by the Islamists".
François Pupponi, the former socialist mayor of Sarcelles, in the northern suburbs of Paris, in his book, The Emirates of the Republic, speaks of a "process of colonization" -- the creeping takeover of entire cities all over the country.
The police, during the pandemic, have been ordered to avoid going into the no-go zones. The government might have feared that if an incident occurred, riots could break out. On April 19, a young man riding a motorcycle at high speed hit the door of a police car near a sensitive zone in a suburb of Paris and was injured: for days, throughout the country, buildings and cars were burned.
The ubiquitous police checks during the pandemic seemingly forced many of the gangs to suspend their activities. The impoverishment of the country resulting from the lockdown will make drug trafficking less profitable. Police therefore expect in the months to come that the gangs might be more violent.
Social conflicts in France, always present, have become even more frequent since the beginning of the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. For years, almost all public gatherings have ended in riots, car burnings and store lootings. They are not a help.
The country's longest strike in four decades ended the day the lockdown was enacted. For more than six weeks, the movement of people and goods was effectively impossible or extremely slowed. The uprising of the "yellow vests", which began on November 17, 2018, before the long strike, lasted fifty weeks. Macron chose to ignore the claims of the strikers, and instead decided to crush the yellow vests movement by using police violence. Polls in January indicate that he has become the most hated president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
When the general lockdown was officially supposed to end on May 11, the French intelligence services told Macron and the government that they feared a large uprising might begin going hand-in-hand with an explosion in gang violence.
Macron apparently then decided to keep the population under tight control. The French were not allowed to travel more than 60 miles from home (the restriction was lifted on June 2). They cannot leave the country without government authorization. Public gatherings of more than ten people are prohibited. Public parks, coffee shops and restaurants are still generally closed. In every city, the police are everywhere and visible. The country seems to be in a state of siege that cannot last indefinitely.
During the lockdown, a law was passed to fine heavily (250,000 euros, $275,000) any social network that published what a judge might consider "hateful." People are also being asked to report to the justice department any suspicious statement they read or hear about. Since schools and high schools have reopened, teachers were invited by the government to listen to the conversations of their students and immediately to report any comment criticizing the government.
There seems no political solution to the situation. Macron, elected in May 2017 when the main French political parties had collapsed, used a fear of "fascism" to defeat Marine Le Pen, president of the rightist National Front party. Macron is unpopular and widely rejected by the French population. His approval rating, which never exceeded 31%, fell to 23%. None of the decisions he made ever stopped the country's decline. The mismanagement of the pandemic in the country was appalling. Yet, he evidently still seems to think that by the next election, in the spring of 2022, he can defeat Marine Le Pen a second time -- she will probably be his main opponent once again -- and glide to an easy victory.
Recent polls, however, suggest that this strategy might not be so easy: it seems Marine Le Pen has been gaining ground.
The present situation, the columnist Ivan Rioufol in Le Figaro suggests, is the result of the "cowardice" of all of the leaders who have ruled the country for decades:
"At the source of French misfortune, there are French traitors who bear French first names. They have been abusing the voters' trust for more than 40 years. They lied about the real state of society and ransacked the country".
"A gunpowder smell spreads over the country," wrote the essayist, Maxime Tandonnet. "Never since the Liberation, even in the worst times, has a team in power been hated so much. The vast majority of the people reject it to a point that is difficult to express. "
He added that he hopes "one or more heroes will emerge from the apocalypse". At the moment, regrettably, no hero is in sight.
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.