When Emmanuel Macron posted a picture on Twitter in red, white and blue last week saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you”, he was for once lavishing praise not on the medical staff he calls “heroes in white coats” but on France’s supermarket cashiers and delivery drivers.
The coronavirus pandemic sweeping through Europe has highlighted how much of daily life and the real economy depend on the lowest-paid workers, whether they are nurses, shop assistants, truck drivers, farm labourers or refuse collectors.
“I’m appalled to work in these conditions,” said Eva, behind the counter of a bakery in Louveciennes, west of Paris. She has turned down a request from her boss to work 60 hours a week instead of 42 because she has children to care for.
“I have a mask which doesn’t protect me enough and I’m doing extra hours already because there’s a shortage of employees,” she said. “I don’t have the choice because if I refuse to work, I’ll lose my job, but there are some days when I am really tempted to take sick leave.”
Eduardo, a building worker renovating an office in central Paris, said he would rather risk infection by going to work than lose his job. “It’s not fair because we are more exposed than with other professions that can be done from home over the phone, but there’s no choice.”
Such experiences have inspired trade unionists, leftwing politicians and commentators to compare those they see as the feckless teleworking elite with the men and women at France’s checkouts and on production lines.
Two factors could deepen this potential social fracture in a country scarred by more than a year of anti-government “gilets jaunes” protests: first, wealthy Parisians rushed en masse to their country homes at the start of the lockdown, probably spreading the virus and triggering widespread resentment; second, a shortage of masks and hand-cleaning gel has left many shop assistants, police officers and others unprotected.
“It’s an eye-opener,” said Chloé Morin, an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank. “The existence of social inequalities is not new, but it’s amplified by the current crisis.
“It highlights the fact that our society tends to give low social status and marginal economic rewards to those doing essential tasks. The people who make the economy work are in the end poorly paid and poorly regarded.”
France is not the only country to find that essential but low-paid workers are among those most likely to be exposed to the virus.
In Spain, trade unions complain that postal workers and supermarket staff are at risk. Pablo Iglesias, Spanish deputy prime minister and leader of the radical left Podemos party, has spoken of “a war that doesn’t distinguish between territories, although sadly it does distinguish between social classes”.
But France, after months of protests over everything from green fuel taxes to pension reforms, appears particularly vulnerable to class conflict, and faces the prospect of a confrontation between opposition parties and the government after or even during the pandemic.
The leftwing newspaper Libération ran six pages on the topic last week under the front-page headline “Coronavirus: the low wages of fear”. An editorial asked: “Are we sure that the hierarchy of prestige and income in our societies corresponds to the social utility of those who benefit?”
One bone of contention is Mr Macron’s attempt to maintain non-essential production and services to avoid a deep recession and ensure that the economy can recover after the pandemic. This policy prompted Leila Chaibi of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party to ask whether sushi deliveries were “essential” for the life of the nation.
“How much is the life of a cashier worth, or a security guard?” asked Amar Lagha, of the Communist-aligned CGT union federation, after learning of the death from coronavirus of Aïcha Issadounène, a union representative and cashier at the Carrefour hypermarket in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
“If the government and the bosses don’t close the non-food shelves of the supermarkets then we’ll call for a strike.” The CGT has already announced a strike in April for local government employees.
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Mr Macron and his ministers quickly abandoned or suspended economic reforms and deficit controls once the gravity of the crisis became apparent, saying the government would do everything to tackle the pandemic and preserve jobs and companies, “whatever the cost”.
At an emergency military field hospital for coronavirus patients in Mulhouse, in eastern France, Mr Macron also called for national unity in the face of “floods of fake news” and “divisions, doubts and all those who want to fracture the country”.
Divisions or not, the place in French society of supermarket staff and other essential workers could be changed by this crisis. Supermarket chains faced with high absenteeism have already offered bonuses of up €1,000, two-thirds of the minimum wage, for those who show up for work during the pandemic.
“At the moment, the government and all of society is trying to send the signal that these people are heroes,” said Ms Morin. “But at the end of the crisis will they be forgotten?”
Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris and Daniel Dombey in Madrid