Pandemic Shakes France’s Faith in a Cornerstone: Strong Central Government

SCEAUX, France — A couple of baguettes tucked under her arm, Maha Rambousek fiddled with a face mask that kept sliding off her nose. After a local decree made masks mandatory in public, she had quickly stitched it together, but was left confused when the policy was overturned two days later by the central government.

“We have some of the highest taxes and biggest public spending in the world, and the French people accept that because, implicitly, their protection was guaranteed by the state,’’ said Mr. Vermeren, who teaches at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

NY Times

“I don’t know who’s wrong or who’s right,’’ Ms. Rambousek said. “And I can’t turn to anybody for certainties.’’

The measure in Sceaux, a well-to-do suburb just south of Paris, was one of an increasing number of exceptional local challenges to the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has shaken confidence in a cornerstone of French society: the primal authority of the centralized state.

The city of Perpignan lodged contagious patients in a hotel after the central government told people to self-isolate at home. Officials in the city of Marseille carried out widespread testing of both the sick and healthy even as the government ordered that only the seriously ill be tested. The city of Paris tightened a national lockdown by banning daytime jogging.

While France’s vaunted health care system has staved off disaster, France has suffered the world’s fourth-biggest death toll — now at 23,660 official deaths, behind the United States, Italy and Spain — a consequence, critics say, of the central government’s failure to anticipate the onslaught of the contagion.

That failure and a critical shortage of masks and testing kits — also resulting from gaps in state policies — led to the virus’s rapid early spread, prompting France to impose one of the word’s strictest nationwide lockdowns, now in its seventh week. [ . . . ]

Continue story at NY TIMES

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