Covid-19: a more peaceful German public debate than in France?

Grandstand. The comparison between France and Germany on the management of the Covid-19 epidemic turns to the advantage of the Rhine: more screening tests and resuscitation beds, fewer deaths in hospitals and retirement homes. While the President of the French Republic declared “We are at war” on March 12, his German counterpart refused military language and offered a fine example of solidarity by welcoming Alsatian patients to German hospitals. However, this difference in the management of the Covid cannot be explained by timeless cultural characteristics, German discipline against French bravery, but rather by variations in the organization of the debate in public space on each side of the Rhine.

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The contrast between France and Germany is in fact made clear by the relationship between the state, experts and civil society in the two countries. While French research institutions have given little support to the scientific work of coronavirus specialists, such as Bruno Canard or Hubert Laude, the public debate revolves around the controversial figure of Didier Raoult, known for his work on complex viruses at the Institute university hospital in Marseille and its experiments on the treatment of malaria with hydroxychloroquine in Senegal. When Didier Raoult announced on February 25 on the basis of Chinese publications that hydroxychloroquine is used to treat Covid-19 and that this new disease is not serious, it arouses curiosity and hope. When he announced on March 16 in a video on Youtube that some patients treated in Marseille with hydroxychloroquine had seen their viral load in Sars-CoV2 decrease, he opposed his intuition to the long methodologies of clinical study procedures.

Sulfurous reputation

Across the Rhine, the situation is quite different. The German virologist Christian Drosten has become a reference in his country. Director of the virology department of the Charité university hospital in Berlin, after having long directed the Bonn virology institute, Drosten was one of the co-discoverers of the SARS coronavirus in 2003, when he was only 31 years old, and designed the first diagnostic test for SARS, which he made available to the public. He has since formed a team of virologists who collect bat samples to monitor global mutations in coronaviruses, in association with associations of bat lovers. His podcasts on the different aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic are among the most listened to in Germany, and he advises the Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, in the Bundestag.

The contrast between Drosten and Raoult reverses the rivalry between Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur at the end of the XIXe century. Koch was a doctor in a small town in the Hanover region when he demonstrated the mode of transmission of anthrax by spores in 1876. This discovery stimulated Pasteur in the development of anthrax vaccination. Koch had a reputation as sulphurous as that of Raoult today, because he divorced to go to the East with his young wife in pursuit of cholera, while Pasteur died sacred both by the Republic and by the Church for his work on rabies.

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This brief history of virology could reduce scientific research to quarrels between dominant men to impose science on the rest of the world. But the contrast between Raoult and Drosten on both sides of the Rhine contrasts rather with two ways of speaking in public: the arrogance of the scientist who speaks louder than the others and the humility of one who recognizes his limits. These are two alternative forms of critical work in public space, as theorized by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas: connecting private individuals to discuss issues of common interest.

Use of reason

According to Habermas, who published his philosophy thesis on the concept of public space in 1960, democratic institutions favor the participation of all citizens in the rationality developed by scientific activity. Philosophical criticism consists, according to him, in describing and limiting the obstacles to this participation, so as to move from the “minority” to the “majority” in the use of reason. When the German philosopher points out in an interview published on April 10 in the world that the pandemic is forcing “Act in the explicit knowledge of our non-knowledge”, he probably thinks of the virologist Christian Drosten.

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Sociologist Dominique Linhardt, who compared the forms of public space and the state of emergency in Germany and France, writes in the EHESS notebook : “The originality of the controversy about the treatment promoted by Didier Raoult to fight the Covid-19 epidemic lies in the fact that it is too late to wait for the discovery to be justified. The urgency then leads to the politicization of the decision whether or not to trust the intuitions of the Marseille scientist and his teams. “

The analogy between Drosten and Raoult as two media stars in France and Germany makes one think about the forms that the ideal of the Enlightenment took on both sides of the Rhine. As historian Antoine Lilti has shown, this republican ideal comes into tension with the forms of celebrity, because these introduce specifically modern logics of domination: scientific experts on the supposedly ignorant public, men on women , from Europe to the rest of the world.

While the centralization of public space in France is swinging opinion between the Parisian elites who respect the rules and the Marseille scholar who transgresses them, in a moment of emergency marked by the spread of the epidemic and the absence German federal space allows for a more peaceful debate around an epidemic under control, whose future developments must be humbly anticipated.

Frédéric Keck is the author ofA seized world (Flammarion, 2010) and will publish in April Sentinels of pandemics (ed. Hotspots).


Frédéric Keck CNRS research director, director of the Social Anthropology Laboratory

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