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Anger puts Covid-19 measures to the test

Three questions to Marc Lazar

Anger puts Covid-19 measures to the test
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

Violent protests erupted in the Netherlands and Denmark after new measures were imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. In France, the anti-restriction discourse is still marginal but seems to be gaining ground. Can these movements eventually hinder the implementation of new measures? How can this anger be managed? Marc Lazar, contributor on French and European political and institutional issues, responds to our questions.

The violence we see emerging in Europe in response to confinements or curfews, and most recently in the Netherlands, is alarming. Is this rise in anger likely to increase, even as the public health situation remains cause for concern?

It is always difficult to make such predictions. There are, however, multiple factors that suggest that the type of violence that occurred in the Netherlands could be repeated elsewhere, even though each context is unique. The anger you’re referring to stems from the impoverishment of a whole range of groups, including the middle classes; from the precarity that affects young people and those with a lower level of education; from the deepening of social, regional and gender inequalities, as well as between nationals and foreigners. In addition, there is exasperation and weariness in the face of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, which can lead to forms of despondency, distress, not to mention depression - or, conversely, to revolt. Incomprehension - dismay, even - in the face of contradictory measures taken by governments; an increasingly widespread sense that governments, experts and scientists no longer know how to control the pandemic; disappointment caused by the slow, difficult roll-out of vaccination campaigns after they were presented as the long-awaited salvation… All of this exacerbates the rancour and leads some to resort to nihilistic violence. We know that historically, pandemics have often led to outbreaks of violence and a search for scapegoats. But this Covid-19 crisis, with its multiple social consequences - which are only just beginning to be felt - occurs in a very particular political context that predates the pandemic.

The anger stems from the impoverishment of a whole range of groups, including the middle classes; from the precarity that affects young people and those with a lower level of education; from the deepening of inequalities.

The backdrop to the crisis is one of distrust towards institutions and political leaders, observed in most countries, albeit with varying degrees of intensity. In our current situation, it is even more difficult for citizens to believe what governments say, to accept their decisions, to respect their instructions. As we know, our European democracies are going through a phase of exhaustion. The fatigue is reinforced by populist parties, which stop short of calling for riots or justifying a resort to violence, but are tempted to fan the flames, all while "pandemic deniers" proliferate on social media. There are always more or less well-organized groups willing to rush into the streets, to confront law enforcement and to loot and destroy: ideological groupings of the far-right or far-left that pursue various political objectives, traffickers and delinquents who can no longer carry out their activities because of confinement or curfews, youth gangs that spend their time fighting, etc.

Lastly, from both an anthropological and sociological point of view, our modern societies are shaped by two contradictory dynamics: that of equality and that of individualization. The first leads to legitimate indignation by those suffering when they note that more privileged groups are doing rather well - very well, even, because they have been saving for months. The second leads entire segments of the population to clamor for freedom in the face of the slightest constraint imposed on the way they wish to live and work by what they call the "health dictatorship".

Do we have examples today of countries that have been able to make their population understand their policies in such a way that it has limited social explosions?

We need to remember that not all European countries are on fire, or on the brink of a civil war. None of them are, actually. That being said, it was very surprising to see violent behavior occur in Germany this summer and in the Netherlands at the moment. I will, paradoxically, take the examples of France and Italy, two countries where democracy is experiencing a fairly significant crisis and where there is currently no equivalent outbreak of violence (though caution is advised). In France, the handing out of considerable state aid is often criticized, and it is true that not everyone benefits from it. Nonetheless, state aid has undoubtedly mitigated the impact of the public health and social crises, notably by limiting the rise in unemployment. In addition, the "Yellow Vests movement" was severely repressed and has now fallen apart. As the months went by, it enjoyed less and less public support, and its excesses - its violence, in fact - exasperated many French people. But, I repeat, we must be careful: everything could shift again. In Italy, we are witnessing something astonishing. In a country characterized by an almost structural distrust of the state and politics, we see a rise in trust in the government, in President Sergio Mattarella and, up to his resignation, in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. This is one of the reasons why a large number of Italians do not understand the governmental and parliamentary crisis that is underway. 

In fact, given the fear and anxiety for the future caused by Covid-19, Italians are looking for protection and security. In the past, they often turned to the Catholic Church and the dominant political parties, such as Christian Democracy and the Italian Communist Party.

The loss of influence of the former and the collapse of the latter led them to turn to the state instead. If the state is not up to the task - many of the promised aid packaged have not yet been delivered - and proves incapable of drawing up a substantial recovery plan, there will be a great sense of disillusionment. This will allow the opposition, especially Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, to move forward, but it may also lead to outbreaks of violence fueled by extremist groups or organized criminal networks.

In France, [...] state aid is often criticized, and it is true that not everyone benefits from it. Nonetheless, state aid has undoubtedly mitigated the impact of the public health and social crises, notably by limiting the rise in unemployment.

You wrote for our blog that the Covid-19 crisis seemed to have stemmed the rise of populist movements and discredited their discourse. However, don’t we see a form of populism, infused with a skepticism of scientific recommendations, in these protests against Covid-19 measures?

In truth, I wrote that the Covid-19 crisis had put populist parties in general in a difficult position, and those on the right have also been affected by the defeat of Donald Trump, their model or source of inspiration. But I also explained that if the pandemic continued, it would give credit back to populist opposition parties, because they will hold the governments in power responsible. Moreover, I have always believed that they could exploit the economic downturn and the social situation, while doing everything and anything to amplify political distrust, deepen intolerance of immigrants and demand the closure of borders. They also play and will continue to play on the distrust of science by segments of the population - a lack of trust that, in my opinion, cannot be qualified as populist only. It is true that in France, many anti-vaccine campaigners support the populist parties Rassemblement National and, to a lesser extent, France Insoumise. But citizens who are not populist in any way also note that scientists issue different, even contradictory opinions: as such, doubt is settling among these parts of the population, too. Worse still, despite indications in polls that the French were strongly in favor of a vaccine, the hurdles and various failures of the vaccination campaign create disillusionment among pro-vaccine advocates, confirm the beliefs of those who oppose vaccines on principle and reinforce conspiracy theories. Populists will seek to take advantage of this. They hope to attract new voters. In France, the next presidential election takes place in 2022. Marine Le Pen of Rassemblement National continues to rank high in voting intention polls and a Harris Interactive survey estimates she would obtain 48% of votes in the second round of a presidential election today.



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