How Covid-19 Enlightens the French Malaise

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There is never a right time for a global pandemic. It is never good news. But in France, the coronavirus outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Indeed, the health crisis surges at a critical and uncertain moment in France; after a six month power struggle between government and the workforce unions, within the context of a highly disputed retirement reform and alarm bells from the public health sector, all reviving discussion about our social system, employment, and the role of the state.

Our 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, shows a broken France, one that must now combat what promises to be the largest crisis of the last few decades, with business and government receiving low trust, and a tremendous gap taking shape between the perceptions of the elites and the mass population.

What we are experiencing is a litmus test for business and government: those who pass will earn long-lasting trust, and those who fail will lose it indefinitely. Covid-19 is not a split or a fracture; it is a revealing moment, a magnifying glass on what can come alive within French society and of its key shifts in perspective.

Covid-19 is a revealing moment for…

  • The French economic system, more challenged now than ever
  • The French people, full of fear and anticipation
  • The French business, expected to step up

The French economic system, more challenged now than ever

In France, 69% of respondents believe that Capitalism does more harm than good, far above most countries surveyed by the Trust Barometer. 78% of the French people express a feeling of injustice against them, and 65% believe the system is failing them.

The fifth world power, a great capitalist nation, France is turning its back on its own model. This defiance is strongly linked to delocalization, deindustrialization, and consequences of unemployment.

In the initial days of the Covid-19 outbreak, media relayed doubts about France’s dependence on other countries. The mask shortage, in particular, has revealed a desperate lack of autonomy. Commentary has also spiraled on how the disappearance of frontiers has played a role in the propagation of the virus.

Everything that has guided our economy has already been brought into question, but what we see now is much more severe. While globalization was praised 20 years ago, it receives public condemnation today.

Yesterday, we expected our economic model to generate profit, progress, and relieve our country. Today, we view our economic model as impersonal and destructive. Wake-up calls multiply around the globe, calling France to seize this opportunity and improve our economic system.

The French people, full of fear and anticipation

The time is now for French people to turn to the state, which has experienced a remarkable resurgence in trust, as seen by our Trust Barometer Spring Update. Although the French have a strong heritage of skepticism towards public authority, the Covid-19 health crisis points to a more state-oriented culture; we challenge every decision, but concurrently expect a lot from the government. What’s more, although the French are notorious for valuing their social liberalism, the coronavirus pandemic reveals a desire for government protection, security, and restrictive measures in leading the fight against the virus.

Here, the call to action for government is, “protect me”. Protect my health, my loved ones, my job. Our research shows that France is the second most pessimistic country towards its own economic and social position in the coming years, and it appears today that an economic crisis will arrive much sooner.

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The Trust Barometer cites “losing my job” as the biggest fear in France, with 8 out of 10 people fearing the loss of employment. Given the severity of Covid-19, that fear has become exponentially greater and its reality more imminent.

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While our research has shown that government is expected to protect employees against the impact of technology and automation, it appears that there is now a new opportunity to step up sooner, and in a much more urgent way.

The French business, expected to step up

Solutions and solidarity initiatives have started to emerge within local communities. Two-thirds of the French people already expected businesses to act in improving conditions for local communities. Now, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, businesses can make a true lasting impact. Our recently launched 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on brands and the coronavirus crisis highlights that 78% of French respondents believe businesses have a responsibility to ensure their employees are protected from the virus in the workplace and that they do not spread the virus within their community.

While healthcare professionals are seen as our frontline heroes, local leaders have stepped in as second-line logisticians, those who implement solidarity plans, those who protect citizens, and those who equip hospitals. The French government is cognizant of local leaders’ rising popularity and has permitted them to act in a more authoritative fashion.

The shortage of masks has become a national disaster in France, with the country aware it cannot produce sufficient protection for its people or healthcare professionals. More than ever, businesses are called to step up and show their sovereignty. They are expected to partner with government and relief agencies. Already true before the pandemic, this paradigm is reinforced today, with 79% of the French people expecting businesses to be a safety net, and to fill in government gaps.

In France, more than in other countries, expectation is higher on providing concrete solutions and products than on communicating about the health crisis. The French people are waiting for action, not conversation, and certainly not sales.

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In exchange, the people will support businesses with their wallets and show gratitude to those who helped. 20% of French respondents say they have boycotted a company’s products because of the poor way it has responded to the pandemic, while another 20% say they have considered buying products from a new company that responded well.

In conclusion, the storm we are facing is leading to an acute yet predictable challenge: institutions are expected to help and benefit society. If they fail to respond, they will be held accountable. Government is expected to protect its citizens, while business is expected on the frontlines or standing in support of those who fight against the virus. This, however, cannot be done with institutions working alone; in a country where the state is at the heart of culture, where business is seen as competent but not ethical, cooperation between government, businesses, and NGOs is essential and beneficial to all. Showing a unified force in combatting the crisis and recovering from it, shoulder-to-shoulder, will help mend the growing gap that divides French society so strongly today.

Flore de Ladoucette is an Account Manager.

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