During confinement, “it is the social interactions which gave its value to the instruction issued by the State”

Why did the French, during the Covid-19 epidemic, massively apply an instruction as radical and as restrictive as confinement? How to explain the respect of this unprecedented health measure putting social life in brackets? These are the questions posed by sociologist Benoit Giry, lecturer at Sciences Po Rennes and researcher at the Arènes laboratory (CNRS, UMR 6051), in a study carried out for the Foundation for the Social Sciences (FSS). This researcher working on the sociology of disasters shows, through an analysis of the messages posted on Twitter during the health crisis, that if the confinement was respected, it is not only because of the fear of the gendarme or the dangers of the contagion: it is also because a number of citizens have actively participated, through their “ordinary contributions”, in the deployment of this public policy.

In spring 2020, the first confinement, despite its extreme rigor, was well respected by the French, who nevertheless have the reputation of being rebellious. Was it a surprise for the sociologist that you are?

The French indeed have a strong propensity not to respect instructions, especially when they emanate from producers of public policies such as the State. According to the ISSP (“International Social Survey Program”) social survey program, which covers around 40 countries, France is the most tolerant nation with regard to transgression: in 2016, nearly 75% of French people ( against 50% of Britons and 30% of Spaniards, for example) felt that it was more important to follow one’s conscience than the law. Mistrust of institutions, which is traditionally correlated with non-compliance with health measures, is also significantly higher in France than in the rest of Europe.

The spring 2020 containment, despite its unprecedented, exceptional and rigorous nature, was very well respected by the French. Surveys show that despite some small arrangements with the rule, only “frontline” employees have left their homes. The others even went beyond government instructions: more than half of the individuals declared outings less than one hour, as the measurements provided for, but thirty minutes.

How to explain this respect for collective discipline?

The literature devoted to the government of catastrophes emphasizes a first factor, the seriousness of the event. Because the pandemic carries serious threats and serious uncertainties, it would naturally incline towards obedience by radically reconfiguring the agenda of individuals: under the effect of fear and astonishment, they would place the Covid-19 at the top of their priorities. The second factor underlines the role of public action instruments: the importance of transfer income and police controls would have made compliance with confinement less costly than its transgression. The third hypothesis underlines the cognitive or moral properties of the actors, who would agree to restrict their freedom because they have measured the danger. The fourth hypothesis insists on national cultures – but, in the case of France, we have seen that it was of little relevance.

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During confinement, “it is the social interactions which gave its value to the instruction issued by the State”