France and the UK. For long periods Europe’s fiercest enemies. In more recent times Europe’s deepest allies through its darkest times.
Separated by a narrow sea. Joined by tunnels and planes built in co-operation. Separated by language. Joined by institutions and philosophies built together and inspired by one another.
France and the UK have long been equals on average, but with differing and complementary strengths. Equal populations, equal size economies, equal contribution to both the shameful history of humanity and its highest achievements, equal military strength, and equal global influence.
Almost always this equality is achieved in different ways. One country is a monarchy with a state religion, the other a secular republic. One is a champion of free-markets with one of the smallest states in Europe, the other is a sceptic of globalisation with the largest state in Europe. One is a drinker of tea, beer, and whisky. The other is a drinker of coffee, wine, and brandy.
Since studying and working in France as a younger man, I have made part of my career in the UK from having the ability and the (embarrassingly rare for a Brit) interest of learning from our second-nearest neighbour. I also share what we do better here. What the UK did on start-up and digital policy a decade ago, France is doing better today. And what France is doing on industrial strategy and decentralisation today, the UK could do even better in a decade.
Whether it’s start-ups, education reform, or transport policy, each country has much to learn from the other. In both, the fear of falling behind their most similar competitor (without good reason, both consider themselves inferior to Germany and are unworried by comparisons) is a remarkably powerful tool for changing government policy and business attitude.
So, prompted by Alex Massie asking the question, I wondered how well the two countries have been doing at dealing with Coronavirus. I have been following coverage and data in both closely, in addition to talking with friends.
I do not claim anything close to a comprehensive analysis. If you are incapable of disagreeing politely, please stop reading now. These are my opinions today. They will change as I learn more.
The elite of both France and the UK are insufferably arrogant. Unsurprisingly they treated the whole of Italy as a caricature of that country’s South. Lombardy is not like that. It is extremely prosperous, it is well-governed, and it has an excellent health system. In part because it is such a globally connected and important European region it was hit first and hit hard by Coronavirus. We had time to learn from it, and we largely failed.
The French government’s spokesperson (much more and more positive to say about her later) reflected a government failure to take the lessons of Italy seriously quickly enough, saying that some of the measures it was taking were unfounded and suggesting that France would fare better as a result of its better strategy.
In typical UK style, we do not know which senior government source reflected the government’s opinion when they briefed the press that Italy’s government was taking "unscientific and populist draconian measures ". We do now know that they are a pompous shit.
France and the UK have both been proven grimly wrong. France continued with the first round of its municipal elections on the 15th of March. The UK continued to hold enormous sporting events such as the Cheltenham Festival until the 13th of March.
Ten and eighteen days behind Italy respectively we find ourselves in the same nightmare as our Italian friends. France saw what was coming more quickly, locked down, and then eventually pushed the UK into following.
But the UK's greater delay is part of why today we saw more deaths by comparable measures in the UK than France or Italy endures on any day. It now seems possible that the UK will be the European country that suffers the most deaths from Coronavirus.
The British and French public have the same three complaints, why aren’t there enough masks for care workers? Why can’t we do as many tests as Germany or Italy? Why weren’t we prepared?
In the UK, everyone in the centre and left is blaming austerity for our poor preparedness for this crisis. After a decade where local government and social care budgets have been cut, and NHS budgets have barely risen above inflation (and below the cost increases of new treatments for an older population), they are almost certainly right. But by ignoring France they are also missing a great deal.
In France the blame is harder for the centre and left to assign. France’s state was not cut like the UK’s in the last decade. France had a socialist President and Parliament. They were booted out of office, disliked in part for not cutting enough. The French public and the left of politics also have to take their share of the blame for dismantling France’s world-leading pandemic preparedness infrastructure and hounding its creator (of the political right) out of office and into shame .
Both countries can perform a similar number of tests, too few in both cases. Both countries have struggled to provide enough masks to care workers. Both problems are being resolved, slowly and painfully and the press coverage gives little conclusive evidence of either country doing significantly better or worse. The French press have covered this better . In time the UK press have emulated them. My impression is that the situation in France is better than in the UK, but that the French public are more unhappy about it.
The French remain miserable. Macron’s approval ratings have improved but not much. He remains an unpopular President. In typical French style, the French think no-one else is better and would elect him again.
Boris Johnson has enjoyed more of a rally round the flag boost in the polls, despite some other polls showing that the public think his government has done poorly.
I don’t know how to interpret polls during a disaster, so I’ll leave that to others.
More interesting to me has been the emergence of national symbology and cohesion. The already near-religious relationship of the UK to its national health service has been deepened yet further. The government has cleverly made the NHS its conduit for all messaging, and its totem for national unity. In copying the French slogan of the crisis (Sauvez des vies, restez chez vous) we have added our religion (Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives). Despite at least two confusing rebrands, the message is extremely effective.
In the absence of a functioning Head of State, and with government briefings deliberately trying to undermine devolved governments within the UK, the NHS has filled a gap even as its limited resources are overwhelmed. Even though it is devolved, those three letters have proven to be an astonishingly strong symbol of national unity, especially in the absence of much else.
France has no national health service, but rather a collection of health services that act together nationally only loosely. Each health service has more resources than the UK, and each seems to have coped better as a result. But, apart from interventions such as military hospitals and TGVs shipping critically ill patients away from badly hit areas towards empty hospitals in other regions, it is a health service not an institution of national unity. The French clapped for their carers before we did the same in the UK but for the French it was an act of gratitude and not one of patriotism.
Unity in France has come from The Republic. The President’s office is deeply respected, even if he is not. His broadcasts are extremely well watched. His broad coalition government is largely trusted. France is seen to be leading in Europe and dealing with its crisis acceptably at home. Its economic response has been swift, decisive, and is trusted.
French friends have joked with me in the past that they can afford to be miserable about France and its politics since France will survive. We Brits have to be more positive they assure me, since the future of the UK is less sure. They are joking of course, but the best humour often has a kernel of truth, and we know that this is good humour since the best joke of the crisis so far has been a Frenchman declaring the UK an unstable state.
The UK communication strategy has been poor. The system of anonymous briefings to a pliant press in return for easy questions and favourable reporting has moved from a national embarrassment to a national threat. But it cannot be changed during a crisis. That the Cabinet still contains at least two capable Ministers (Hancock and Sunak) who can hold press conferences with trustworthy experts is very fortunate. Their competence has saved the UK’s communications efforts from calamity. The brand of the government’s core message has changed at least three times, official advice is unclear, a national emergency mobile phone broadcast system was not set up and the replacement was poor, local government is desperately underfunded. But the UK remains a functional country. Below average in Europe probably, but better than most of the world. And, a quick glance across the Atlantic can confirm, it could be so much worse.
French communications have been good, even if their greater clarity and transparency seems mostly to give the French public more content to attack. Sibeth Ndiaye, the government spokesperson, is an excellent communicator, who regularly holds question and answer sessions with the public online, and explains the French government’s position clearly. Reports from Cabinet (the council of Ministers) are provided to the public directly, as videos and interviews with the relevant Ministers and their expert advisors. The Prime Minister has appeared before select committees. The branding of the government’s core message has been simple and consistent. The national emergency mobile phone broadcast system works. Local and regional government have played their part well. Even the French police have taken a partial break from their usual aggression and racism and seem capable of policing France’s lockdown with less brutal drama than they are known for.
Perhaps the largest difference between the UK and France has been in the quality of data that is being provided to the public, to the media, and (I suspect) to the politicians making decisions about what to do. National, regional, sub-regional, and demographic breakdowns of deaths, hospital admissions, intensive care capacity and occupancy, excess deaths, and much more are provided regularly by French government bodies. The data.gouv.fr site hosts discussions where data is improved, improvements are requested, and analysis is shared. While The Financial Times has undoubtedly provided the best data analysis to the world, no UK paper has access to the data that would let it provide as good analysis to the country as the French press and French society have been able to provide to the French public and its politicians.
If the UK’s decision-makers find out and accept that the two areas where the UK largely believed itself to be world-leading, digital government and open data, have proven to be the two areas where we lagged France furthest they will be shocked and embarrassed. I suspect they will not find out.
While both France and the UK are strong economies that can borrow enormous amounts of money at almost zero interest rates, the UK has an advantage. Outside of the € and the pesky constraints of the law and democracy, the UK can move much more quickly. The Bank of England’s independence has been effectively suspended and it will print money to finance UK government spending directly .
France cannot do this. Instead it has spent time and political capital achieving something less good across the multiple structures of the EU and the €.
Where France seems to make up some of this disadvantage is in the structures for understanding and supporting the economy that it has had in place for a long time. The system of partial unemployment was already in place and seems more efficient than the UK’s furloughing scheme that has been designed from nothing. Help for the self-employed, start-ups, and small businesses seems to be arriving more quickly and require fewer emergency fixes as flaws are discovered than in the UK. This has been widely misinterpreted in the English language press as not doing enough, but I think it is an error to mistake a lack of panic with a lack of action. France has had to innovate less to support its economy than the UK because most of the mechanisms it requires to stabilise itself through a recession already exist. What we can’t know yet is whether the advantages of the French systems for supporting business will overcome relative inflexibility of its economy.