Cole Stangler is a Paris-based writer.

Shortly after taking office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron famously told a crowd of tech entrepreneurs that he aimed to make France “a start-up nation.” The goal, he said, was to become not only a business-friendly country but also one that “thinks and moves like a start-up.” Until recently, that vision had appeared to guide much of his tenure, which has ushered in tax cuts for the super-rich, rollbacks in worker protections and tight limits on state spending, including in public hospitals.

It’s all come crashing down with the coronavirus.

Start-ups, it turns out, are not so well-equipped to handle pandemics or global economic crises. Since the coronavirus arrived in France, Macron has slammed the brakes on his deregulatory agenda, opting instead for a route familiar to many French presidents before him. To secure collective well-being, he has boosted public intervention in the economy and turned to his country’s welfare state.

The speed of the adjustment has been nearly as spectacular as the change itself. In just over a week, the government has frozen a plan to overhaul the retirement system, which would have resulted in benefit cuts for millions of public-sector workers. It has delayed the application of unemployment reforms that enhance scrutiny of aid recipients. And it has suspended a decision to privatize Paris airports. None of these plans have been scrapped for good, but the government is all but acknowledging they aren’t worth the costs.

French President Emmanuel Macron on March 16 ordered people in the country to stay at home for up to 15 days amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Reuters)

At the same time, authorities are ramping up public intervention in the economy. The French government has unveiled a stimulus plan worth some 45 billion euros, including measures that allow struggling businesses to cancel taxes, Social Security contributions, and even rent and utility payments. The plan also includes a major expansion in the temporary unemployment system, with the state more than quadrupling the maximum sum it pays employers to keep workers with reduced hours on staff. In addition to all this, the government has offered 300 billion euros in loan guarantees to businesses and floated the possibility of nationalizing companies in distress.

The shift in policy has been accompanied by a shift in rhetoric. Last Thursday, in his first nationally televised speech on the crisis, Macron hailed France’s safety net with a turn of phrase that sounded as though it could have been lifted from a Communist Party flier from the 1970s: “Free health care … and our welfare state are precious resources, indispensable advantages when destiny strikes.”

It remains unclear what will happen next. This much is certain, however: The pandemic has flipped the logic of Macronism on its head. And as the damage piles up from the virus, criticism of the supposed backwardness of the French social model rings more hollow than ever before.

For decades now, business elites and many of the country’s political parties have claimed that the French state’s role in the economy is an obstacle to progress in an increasingly competitive and globalized marketplace. But today, France’s relatively generous welfare state and the state’s broad authority to enact pressure on employers appear far more like advantages than deficiencies — as signs of modernity, not outdatedness. The sort of bare-bones protections offered in countries such as the United States suddenly look antiquated by comparison.

With covid-19 promising to send tens of thousands to hospitals, France’s national public health system offers the sick effectively free, universal care. With millions at risk of losing their jobs and seeing reduced hours, state intervention will keep paychecks coming for many. And as employers reel from a dramatic shutdown in business activity, France’s system of collective bargaining and labor protections hand the government valuable oversight of how the crisis shapes workplaces nationwide. These are basic benefits and rules that everybody deserves, whether French or not.

Macron topped off his Monday speech introducing strict nationwide confinement measures with an enigmatic finish. In what was ultimately the most viewed presidential address in French history, Macron said the crisis will have “taught us a lot” and assured the public he would “draw all the consequences” from this difficult period. It’s impossible to know what exactly he meant, but perhaps the rest of us should draw conclusions on our own: In our dangerous and uncertain world, it’s time to ditch the folly of cutting social spending, and renew the fight to preserve and expand it.

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