Our view on… the government’s communication on the coronavirus
The press conferences of the General Director for Health (GDH), Jérôme Salomon, are in the process of becoming to the Covid-19 epidemic what those of the prosecutor François Molins were to the fight against terrorism: a daily meeting at a fixed time, broadcast by all the continuous 24/7 news channels, which makes it possible to follow the “inexorable” progression of the contagion. But if the omnipresence of the prosecutor was a response to a constitutional rule, the independence of the judicial authority, that of the GDH, is the fruit of a communication strategy wanted by the government. The government is trying to show that it is in control of the situation and is taking the necessary measures but, at the same time, it relies heavily on scientists to determine these measures and to explain them daily. A sharing of responsibilities that does not totally convince the French people. Last Wednesday, if 65% of them felt well informed, they were 58% to believe that the crisis was badly managed by the government!
The choice of a communication partly delegated to medical experts and embodied by a Mr. Coronavirus…
The coronavirus epidemic has upset the usual hyper-communication of Edouard Philippe’s government in crisis situation. He seems to have learnt the lessons from the difficulties encountered during the Lubrizol fire in Rouen, where he failed to reassure the inhabitants of Rouen and even amplified the crisis through his somewhat vague activism with the Prime Minister’s travels, ministerial visits, press conferences by the Prefect and releases from the Regional Health Agency,. This time, the government chose to hide at least partly behind medical experts: a wise strategic choice when we know that members of the medical profession are among the professionals the French trust the most, while national politicians come last.
As we have seen, the government is relying on Jérôme Salomon, University Professor and hospital practitioner in infectious and tropical diseases at the AP-HP Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Garches (Hauts-de-Seine). He has become the face and voice of the fight against coronavirus. Calm and serene, Jérôme Salomon is the expert whom everyone wants to trust and whose word cannot be questioned. Last Tuesday’s meeting of some thirty scientists around Emmanuel Macron was along the same line: to show that political power relies on experts to assess the seriousness of the disease and define the measures to be taken.
This did not prevent the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health from affirming their presence and determination through field visits, statements in the media and above all the staging of government meetings around Edouard Philippe and even “defense councils” at the Elysée Palace. With a twofold objective: “to reassure and protect” and to show that the government is fulfilling its role, to organize the fight against contagion. But during this time, it is Jerome Salomon who daily reviews the figures of the epidemic.
… which is not always enough to make the pedagogy of a health strategy in constant evolution.
While the usual barrier gestures in such situations – greeting each other from a distance, washing hands with soap and water for 30 seconds or with a hydroalcoholic solution, sneezing into one’s elbow, covering one’s mouth and nose when sneezing – have been well heard and welcomed by the population, other measures have been less well understood.
It is true that some of them are sometimes difficult to explain because they are counterintuitive such as the removal of the confinement of people entering the country from affected countries when moving to stage 2. This change decided late in the evening and applied without notice the following morning led to paradoxical situations which were widely reported in the media and served as a basis for questioning the government strategy. How do you explain that a fairground market is brutally closed by the gendarmerie after 2h30 of operation while the supermarket across the street remains open? Why allow Italian fans to attend the Lyon-Juventus match and ban cultural events or local competitions? At the risk of fueling more or less populist polemics.
The way in which the government is preparing the public opinion for the transition to stage 3 seems to show that it has learned from the failures of the transition to stage 2. Last Sunday, its spokesman referred to this decision as a possibility; on Friday, visiting an EHPAD, the President stressed the inexorable nature of the epidemic, “phase 3 when it will intervene” he added, continuing the instillation work; the minister explained what stage 3 was all about. Today, the debate is only about when to impose the measure. In the meantime, the specific decisions taken for the Oise and Haut-Rhin allow the public to be prepared for what lies ahead. From this point of view, the cancellation of the Strasbourg-PSG match is a strong sign, even if it makes it more difficult to prepare for next Wednesday’s match against Dortmund.
With the move to stage 3, the government will have to arbitrate between generalized measures and local application on a case-by-case basis. The former may be easier to explain at first but more difficult to implement in the long run. Local adaptation will be essential, and the government will have to rely on its centralized levels and on intermediary bodies, especially local elected officials. From this point of view, the current municipal elections are not a favorable factor and deprive the executive branch of this essential relay in times of crisis, which mayors are.
Despite the difficulties mentioned above, the government has so far been generally successful in its communication. But the executive is on a very narrow crest path between those who will always reproach it for not doing enough for economic reasons and those who will stress that it is doing too much for political reasons, between avoiding dramatization, so as not to generate the phenomena of psychosis or even panic that we have already seen in some shops, and taking all the necessary measures, without stopping the country completely and jeopardizing its economic recovery. Whether it relies on medical experts, on its local relays or on intermediate bodies, it will bear sole responsibility for any failure.
 La confiance des français dans différents acteurs et personnalités, Harris Interactive pour le nouveau magazine littéraire, 10/24/2019
 Which will eventually take place behind closed doors.