On both sides of the Channel, mainstream media has fallen into a trap laid by those running the machinery of government. Coverage in France has been dominated from the beginning of March by a sort of racing commentary. It is as if we have all been spectators in the stands at Royal Ascot with our money riding on one horse or another.
How many cases were there yesterday? Up or down on the day before? Are hospital admissions running higher or lower than new infections? How long before this or that vaccine? How many planes have arrived from China with masks? When will this or that little lockdown modification be implemented and where? The daily statistics and the official manoeuvres have become a hallucinating, ever shifting display that only serves to hide the continuing absence of the things that really count: the production, distribution and use of the materials needed to block the spread of the virus or detect and treat those it has caught up with in a way that enables social and productive life to continue in reasonable security.
Or perhaps we are like a passing eleventh century Sussex serf who happened upon several thousand men howling and hacking at each other one autumn day and found themselves watching in appalled fascination as one side steadily tricked the other into slow, bloody submission.
Both Johnson and Macron are masters of this art. Had we not been diverted by the Covid crisis we would all have been more conscious of the media leaks back in February that told of preparations for Boris’ “Hey, come swivel on that” law now being slammed in the EU’s face. Had we not been sweltering in the hottest French summer and autumn yet, we would all have paid more attention to the persistent warnings by health professionals that a steady rise in Covid cases was caused by the way those in a position of authority were not ensuring that the most simple rules were observed.
Puy du Fou
In the middle of the August heat wave as I searched for a Sunday paper in the concourse of the Gare de Lyon, trying to keep more than one centimetre away from people, more than a few without masks, was impossible. Some were perhaps travellers back from the Puy du Fou amusement park in Vendée, a place that specialises in historic pageants and battle scenes.
For the night of Saturday 15 August it had been granted special permission by the local Prefect to host 9,000 spectators even though Premier Jean Castex had only shortly before announced that France’s restriction on gatherings of more than 5,000 was being extended until 30 October.
That paper had a little scoop. “The President was surprised” by the derogation, it reported “someone close to Macron” as saying. As much as Henry II was surprised by the murder of Thomas Becket?
Macron is frequently on the phone with the founder of Puy du Fou, Philippe de Villiers, whose 29th book ranting against progressive ideas – Les Gaulois réfractaires demandent des comptes au Nouveau Monde or The rebellious Gauls are calling the New World to account – came out in the summer. It tells of de Villiers’ disillusionment with Macron. The future presidential couple had visited Puy du Fou while Macron was still a supposedly loyal minister under François Hollande. De Villiers has him saying he wanted to “block the way for Hollande to the Presidency”.
“Philippe, if I have come here,” he quoted the political trickster as telling him, “it is precisely to contradict, by the power of this symbol, so called ‘progressism’. That was also the reason why I went to the Festival of Joan of Arc at Orléans.” But, asks de Villiers, wiser now by three years experience of Macron in power, “by changing the needle and thread so quickly and so radically, how can he weave his Bayeux Tapestry?”
Les Gaulois réfractaires finishes with a solemn declaration. “We need to warm ourselves before the fire of ancient glories.”
Hastings perhaps for him, but not that other battle which, like Hastings, is one of the few events that I am prepared to see under the usually ridiculous heading “It changed history for ever”. In 1954, defeat at Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French colonialism in Indo-China.
Dien Bien Phu
Today, the lack of personal freedom and democracy in Vietnam, as well as being a totally unacceptable oppression, is a humiliating slight on the memory of an unequal contest that, for my generation, became the symbolic heritage for every struggle for liberation. But, analyse what the country has managed to do in the face of Covid-19. An outbreak in Danang at the end of July brought the first deaths of which there remain only a few dozen. Vietnam has a population of 95 million, half as large again as France or Britain. Throughout the epidemic, its economy has continued to function and grow.
This comparison ought to be humiliating for Macron and Johnson. The authorities in Vietnam did not set out to control or moderate the spread of the virus, but to reduce it to zero. What they do is shaped by that objective. What is done in France is shaped by a very different thought, one that led Macron to send an SMS to de Villiers on 25 May telling him he could open up his Puy du Fou early after France’s lockdown.
The trickster was still playing his games, while those who die from Covid-19 pay the price.