Should France’s Covid response be more transparent?

Some MPs are angry after a parliamentary crisis-monitoring body was dissolved last week

As coronavirus continues to cause damage throughout France, could the country’s MPs be given greater oversight regarding the government’s crisis response?

France has been in an official “state of health emergency” [état d’urgence sanitaire] since 17 October. Declaring a national health crisis streamlines decision-making by giving the prime minister, Jean Castex, the power to restrict free movement, requisition important supplies and control prices by decree for one month. After that period, parliament must approve an extension to the état d’urgence. MPs did this on 14 November, allowing the emergency powers to last until 16 February.

But no end to the official emergency is in sight yet. After a debate which took place in France’s lower house – the Assemblée nationale – on Tuesday evening, French MPs voted 164-94 to extend the national health emergency until 1 June.

The debate also gave some opposition MPs the opportunity to vent their frustrations over what they see as the government’s overly centralised pandemic response.

Raphaël Schellenberger, an MP from the centre-right parliamentary group Les Républicains (LR), questioned “the place of democracy in the management of the health crisis”.

Philippe Gosselin, also from LR, argued that MPs were being left out as a result of the government’s decision to extend the health emergency. He told the Assemblée: “Are you saying, Mr Rapporteur, that in a year we will maybe still be here, and maybe even in two, in three years? No one wishes that but we don’t know. Therefore, every three months, or every fortnight, are you going to say to us, regularly in any case, that ‘We can’t respect the rights of parliament because we don’t know?’”

All things considered, clarity of direction is essential in times of crisis. But a desire for clarity ought not to come at the cost of weakening dialogue between the executive and elected politicians.

In a major blow to opposition MPs on 27 January, the centrist government’s legislative majority in the Assemblée nationale decided to dissolve a body with a “mission for information on Covid-19”. According to one MP from the centre-left Parti socialiste (PS), the body “was ultimately the only place in the Assemblée where you could have a very transversal approach towards the management of the pandemic.” 

The cross-party body had produced two reports analysing the government’s handling of the crisis. Le Monde said that the second report, released on 8 December 2020, was “damning”.

Julien Borowczyk, from the governing party, La République en Marche (LREM), denied that the body had been shut down in order to stifle the opposition. He said: “If we had wanted to muzzle the opposition, we would have voted against the publication of Eric Ciotti’s [8 December] report”.

And, in fairness, the commission was never intended to be permanent. “Information missions are always temporary”, according to Guillaume Gouffier-Cha, an MP from LREM. “They are not designed to become permanent commissions” he told Le Monde

Yet the escalating gravity of the pandemic may necessitate more frequent evaluations of the government’s crisis response.

Re-establishing the body could be a positive step towards restoring confidence in the government among members of the lower house. MPs from LR and PS have already said that they will approach the speaker of the Assemblée nationale, Richard Ferrand, to re-establish the body.

The government has also been criticised for placing too much influence regarding the pandemic response in the hands of the Health Defence Council [Conseil de défense sanitaire], which is chaired by President Emmanuel Macron and consists of a select group of ministers and advisers. According to France Culture, the conseil de défense has become “the principal place of political decisions” for the pandemic. The model is similar to that used by former president François Hollande when navigating the fallout of the 2015-16 terror attacks. One macronisteYaëlle Braun-Pivet, said on Sud Radio that a “more transparent” committee should be constructed.

On balance, criticisms of overly centralised decision-making may constitute a misunderstanding of benign attempts to reduce political bureaucracy in France, which has always been a national bugbear. As finance minister Bruno Le Maire says, “The government functions better with fewer ministers and fewer places for decisions”. Decisiveness is important during a pandemic.

But there is a fine line between eliminating bureaucracy and maintaining governmental accountability. In this light, there is no reason to suggest why an analysis committee consisting of even a small group of MPs couldn’t still be set up, and why outcomes of Conseil de défense meetings couldn’t be made available to this group, at the very least.

Sixteen months away from the 2022 presidential election, it is vital that Mr Macron and Mr Castex keep the pandemic under control. With Winston Churchill’s famous line that you should “Never let a good crisis go to waste” in mind, the pandemic is allowing the president and prime minister to display their qualities as the country’s crisis-managers-in-chief. Looking at an opinion poll published today, carried out by Elabe for Les Echos and Radio Classique, it’s working; President Macron and Prime Minister Castex have both risen in popularity for the second month running.

At the same time, the executive should enable opposition MPs in the Assemblée nationale to have their say. If it doesn’t, this crisis may quickly become one not only of health, but of democracy as well.

Photos Florian DAVID, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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