Although, initially, the French did not take seriously the president’s invitation to minimize social contact, over a mere five days the majority of French people realized that the spreading pandemic was real. Many donned an initial lightheartedness, following others into a pasta and toilet paper stock-up frenzy before confining themselves to their homes. Because of greater exposure to the virus there was mounting discontent for those, like caretakers, police officers, and salespeople, who could not telecommute or go on the special unemployment scheme. Yet others did not fully adhere to the social distancing order enforced by the French state and police and merely mimicked an on-the-surface compliance. This is troubling because it undermines the collective effort to combat this deadly new and relatively unknown virus. Even more worrisome is that the mistrust that underlies non-compliance behavior is shared by a far larger group of people than a few sectarian factions who are inclined to conspiracy theories.
During my doctoral fieldwork on alternatives to capitalism, I was struck by French workers’ abilities to see evil capitalist master plans in unexpected places, such as factory closures (a phenomenon known as licenciement boursiers or “stock market layoffs”). This time conspiracy-like theories were coming from “néo-ruraux” (neo-rurals) or urbanites recently settled in the countryside, a population not necessarily predisposed to conspiracy theories. Typically, they are described as poorly politicized individuals pursuing a new lifestyle choice. Unlike factory workers, they belong to the middle class and have attained educations above the national average. In the current climate of social confinement, they are actively exchanging alternative sources of information about COVID-19, flooding email and social media with conspiracy-like scenarios.
Their primary source of suspicion seems to be legitimate. Since France was one of the first western democracies that chose to implement a nationwide lockdown, many French worry the ends did not justify the means. They see social confinement as an assault on basic freedoms of movement, assembly, and manifestation that would individualize and fracture society. French people are afraid that social isolation might be more dangerous than the virus itself, particularly for the most vulnerable such as prisoners, refugees, the homeless, and the poor.
In his March 16 speech, President Macron repeatedly emphasized that “we are at war” (against the coronavirus) and that exceptional times require exceptional measures, to justify the government’s decision to impose social confinement. Many neo-rurals interpreted that the state was using the virus as an opportunity to exercise naked power. Indeed, the declared state of “health emergency” gives the state special powers and weakens democratic control. For example, to ensure a continuous provision of essential services and goods during the lockdown, the government has used the health emergency to relax the labor law. The government is also grappling with how to replace seasonal agricultural immigrant labor that will now be absent due to closed borders. Now, workers in some of the most exploited economic sectors such as agriculture, retail, and care are legally allowed to work more weekly hours than before the confinement. Many are worried that all these exceptional measures will become the norm once the epidemic is over.
By the second week of confinement, the French media reported that the coronavirus provides a fertile ground for conspiracy theories. A recent survey reveals that 26 percent of French citizens believe that the origin of the coronavirus was not natural. The study also shows that conspiracy theories are most commonly spread among extreme right-wing and, to a lesser extent, radical left-wing voters. However, by focusing on the most simplistic versions of conspiracy theories, those that evoke a handful of actors belonging to a single organization or ethnic group, the study obscures more mundane yet complex causes for widely spread mistrust and caution. Most of the people who flooded my email with conspiracy-like scenarios did not go as far as thinking that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory. However, they started to piece together an interpretation of events that casts doubt on the information presented by the government. Even more troubling, the construction of shared truths that can guide collective action is becoming more difficult.
The increasing prominence of microbiologist Didier Raoult is further shaking up the political climate. Raoult controversially popularized hydroxychloroquine as the magic bullet against COVID-19. He argued that the dangerousness of the coronavirus is overrated and that social confinement is not justified. He claimed ironically that the discovery of a new therapeutic use for a 50-year-old medication must be deceiving for all those who had hoped to get a Nobel prize and make billions by saving the world with a new drug. While the scientific community received Raoult’s claims with skepticism and the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine is now tested in a European-wide clinical study, many French remain convinced that the reluctance to apply Raoult’s medical protocol against COVID-19 stems from economic and political interests embedded in capitalist relations.
Such capitalist conspiracy is not the artifact of Raoult alone. Historical antecedents made the social terrain fertile for diverging opinions and alternative truths. Although Macron’s March 12 speech called for radical socialist measures (state-paid technical unemployment, state-guaranteed loans, and the possibility of nationalizing strategic enterprises), he had already earned himself the label of a pro-capitalist president. Macron’s labor law reforms, his reaction to the yellow vest movement, and his strongly contested pension reform (now suspended during the health crisis) made him —in the eyes of the peuple—a president for the rich and powerful. His choice to put public health over economic health (if we take the World Economic Forum simulations seriously) went unnoticed by those who already “knew” what kind of a man Macron is.
Macron’s legacy includes seemingly pro-business decisions that run contrary to ideas of public health and shed further doubts on the sanitary measures for combating COVID-19. For example, without much public debate, the number of mandatory vaccinations has increased from 3 to 11 under his presidency. When close to a third of the French population believes that vaccinations are unsafe, this is no minor issue. Previous medical scandals, such as Médiator, Vioxx, and Dépakine and failed vaccination campaigns like that of H1N1 in 2009 fed worries that the state puts the interests of Big Pharma before people’s health. These politics contribute to increasing numbers of French placing more faith in organic food, exercise, and probiotics than in pharmaceuticals and biomedicine. Furthermore, the French’s lack of confidence in Macron’s politics is augmented by his failure to prohibit the use of glyphosate, commonly known as “Roundup,” a herbicide infamously commoditized by Monsanto, despite its World Health Organization’s classification as a “probable carcinogen.” Macron renounced to his own promise to forbid the herbicide, when, in 2017, the European Union (EU) chose to extend the right to sell it. Macron argued that if France forbid glyphosate’s use unilaterally, it would kill French agriculture. He put the health of the economy above the health of people. This was seen as an enormous political failure, especially since the European Food Safety Authority’s report that informed the EU decision seemed to involve a corruption scandal.
The French might be particularly inclined to mobilize class conflict as an interpretive frame, but they do it to unmask (if somewhat clumsily) hidden power. The mistrust in the government’s policy is not an effect of ignorance but a testimony of decades-long “business as usual,” where economic concerns underwrite nearly all politics at the expense of other issues, even pandemics. Calling this interpretive frame a conspiracy theory does no justice. The coronavirus-induced social confinement in France reveals that when it comes to the economy there are many shades of gray between “conspiracy” and “transparency.” However, this interpretive frame should not come in the way of collective action that is necessary to combat the virus and maintain (or rather reconstruct) viable societies. It is urgent to find common ground for making intelligent decisions, and medical experts cannot do this alone. When an epidemic leads to social confinement, it is not only a health crisis, but also a political and an economic crisis. Constructing shared “truths” that can guide common action has never been this difficult and urgent.
Ieva Snikersproge has a PhD in anthropology and sociology of development from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Her thesis, “Working Alternatives to Capitalist Factory Takeovers and the Return to the Land in Early Twenty-First Century France,” investigated two alternatives to capitalist ways of (re)production in Southern France.
Walter E. Little ([email protected]) is contributing editor for the Society for Economic Anthropology’s section news column.
Cite as: Snikersproge, Ieva. 2020. “Capitalism and the Coronavirus Conspiracy.” Anthropology News website, April 8, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1375