La nouvelle liberté égalité fraternité

Leaders are defined in times of crisis it is said. During this pandemic, leaders have been in desperately short supply.

One notable exception is President Emmanuel Macron.

Until now, I have been no great fan. Nor have the French. His popularity rating dropped to around 30%, due largely to his handling of the gilet jaunes protests in Paris. His response to the Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that his popularity is now recovering, rapidly.

One interview has turned me around too. It was conducted by the Financial Times on Friday 17th April. What follows are extracts (1). My intention is to illustrate why I think he has become a European leader worth listening to.

Macron starts in his interview from the same place where this blog and website start from: “We all face the profound need to invent something new, because that is all we can do,” he says. “I don’t know if we are at the beginning or the middle of this crisis — no one knows,” he says. “There is lots of uncertainty and that should make us very humble.”

“I think it’s a profound anthropological shock,” he says of the crisis. “We have stopped half the planet to save lives, there are no precedents for that in our history.” This is where many would stop. But what Macron said next made me sit up and take notice:

“But it will change the nature of globalisation, with which we have lived for the past 40 years . . . We had the impression there were no more borders. It was all about faster and faster circulation and accumulation,” he says. “There were real successes. It got rid of totalitarians, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago and with ups and downs it brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But particularly in recent years it increased inequalities in developed countries. And it was clear that this kind of globalisation was reaching the end of its cycle, it was undermining democracy.” Recognition from a European leader of what many of its citizens have long been saying.

Macron then went on to talk of the future of the European Union. What he says is of interest, in that it is clear that he now sees it in different light. “We are at a moment of truth, which is to decide whether the European Union is a political project or just a market project. I think it’s a political project . . . We need financial transfers and solidarity, if only so that Europe holds on,” he says. In other words, the richer countries need to support the poorer ones during this crisis, which, until now, they have been failing to do.

Critical for me, however, is when Macron turns to the broader lessons that we can draw from the pandemic: the Climate Crisis will kill, here, just as the pandemic has.

People have come to understand, Macron says, “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

Wow! What a declaration of intent. One that is spot on too. Thank goodness someone in leadership finally seems to have understood what it will take to save the planet, and us.

That he has, is underlined in the final part of his interview. Macron likened the fear of suffocation that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

Macron would get my vote, if I had one. I hope the French see it the same way.

(1) Sadly, you have to be a subscriber to read the full written interview or watch its video recording.


Hidden in plain sight

The vulnerability of NHS workers to becoming infected by the Covid-19 patients with whom they are working is well understood. Sadly, many have died of the disease as a result of their contact (1). The courage NHS staff show in turning up for work each day and caring for their patients has led to great appreciation from the public, notably in the public demonstrations on several Thursday evenings when people clap or bang pots and pans in appreciation from their doorsteps and balconies. Similar demonstrations of appreciation are held across Europe, this form of demonstration having started in Italy, in solidarity with their overwhelmed healthcare workers.

What has not been so widely appreciated, however, is that other “essential workers” are equally or even more vulnerable. Bus drivers and train staff come into contact with many hundreds and even thousands of people every day, even after lockdown. They are extremely vulnerable.

While London Transport has placed perspex screens in many buses in an attempt to protect its drivers, this is clearly not doing its job. Other workers have zero protection. To date, 21 transport workers have died in London alone (2). I have not been able to find figures for the country as a whole but suspect that it will be a multiple of this number.

By some accounts warehouse workers and supermarket staff are just as vulnerable as transport workers. Once one person is infected in a warehouse, the infection quickly spreads. Amazon has so far failed to meet even basic standards of human decency in how it treats its staff, refusing to grant them sick leave when required, let alone ensuring adequate standards of social distancing (3).

Likewise, delivery drivers are exposed to regular contact with many hundreds of people a day. What do you do if you need the pay in order to survive, pay which is based on the number of deliveries completed on time, and upon which we are all increasingly reliant as a society, and yet every delivery represents an unknown level of risk? I don’t we have the answer as a society and I don’t think they do as individuals.

One thing I am happy to see, is that these once overlooked people, who include many who are on zero-hours contracts, short-time work, and other forms of insecure work, are now being viewed as “essential workers”. Now that we know them to be essential, and sometimes brave, maybe we can all help ensure they are at least paid a living wage.

Many, if not most of these workers, are currently among the large numbers of working poor, where limited income ensures their poverty, however hard they work (4). I hope we can now ensure they receive a wage that reflects the overall prosperity of our society, not just the small change that trickles down from the rich and the powerful.

Whenever such things are mentioned, the retort comes back, “this will mean higher taxes!” Indeed, it might also mean higher fares and higher delivery charges – but this is what a fairer and more just society looks like: richer people contributing more. If we want real change, we will all have to do with less and pay more for what we consume.

Covid-19 is teaching us all lessons. What is true for ensuring social justice is likely to be just as true for dealing with the climate crisis.

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  • (4) The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on in-work Poverty: