Its Defenses Undone by a Virus, France Seeks Lessons From a Lost War

A book about France’s defeat in World War II has taken on a curious resonance as the country gazes across the border at Germany and asks why it has weathered the pandemic better.

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PARIS — It became the indispensable book of the pandemic, its French author revealing how society’s weaknesses and human frailties gave way to disaster. As the coronavirus tore through France, intellectuals, historians and journalists cracked open their old copies in search of eternal truths in an unsettling time.

No, it was not Albert Camus’s “The Plague.’’ It was “Strange Defeat’’ by Marc Bloch.

In the country that gave the world the classic novel, it is “Strange Defeat’’ — a scholarly dissection about the fall of France in 1940 not widely known even inside the country — that has instead become the reference to understand what went wrong this time.

Why did France record one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death tolls and mortality rates? Why is it expected to suffer a catastrophic drop of 11 percent in its gross domestic product?

Some French have sought clues in “Strange Defeat,’’ which described a country that, in 1940, believed it had the best army in the world but that was trounced by Hitler’s forces in six short weeks.

Bloch, a historian and army officer, wrote the book in the months following France’s collapse, explaining how an ossified bureaucracy and an out-of-touch elite had left his country without the proper defenses and without the critical capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing situation on the ground.

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To some readers, the parallels to 2020 cannot be ignored.

In the early months of 2020, as the virus ravaged China and then found a European foothold in Italy, France watched with confidence, seemingly secure behind a health care system that it has long believed to be one of the world’s best, if not the best.

But the virus quickly overwhelmed the country, bereft of masks, tests, ventilators and other defenses and led by officials who remained always a few steps behind what President Emmanuel Macron called the “invisible enemy.’’

“Marc Bloch writes in his book that France’s army, supposedly the world’s best, collapsed on its own soil within a matter of weeks in a climate of dismay, shock and incomprehension,” said Jérôme Fourquet, the director of opinion at IFOP, a major polling organization.

“We believed our health care system would be an insurmountable rampart against the epidemic,’’ Mr. Fourquet said. ‘‘But when the attack came, we realized that it wasn’t true. We were shocked to learn that our health care system was disorganized, we didn’t have stocks of medication or face masks or tests.’’

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As in 1940, France was left reeling. Today, as France gradually pulls itself out of one of the world’s strictest lockdowns and steels itself against a looming economic crisis, the French are among the most pessimistic in Europe and the most critical of their government’s handling of the outbreak, according to polls by Mr. Fourquet and others.

The pessimism has been fueled by France’s perceived downgrade in the global pecking order, something about which it, as a former great power, remains extremely sensitive. And once again, as in 1940, France’s historical rival, Germany, has come out ahead. Though Germany has recorded nearly 9,000 deaths, it has outperformed other Western nations in its handling of the crisis. France’s death toll is more than 29,000.

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“France tends to compare itself unfavorably to Germany, but we reassure ourselves by comparing ourselves to the Italians: We’re not as good as the Germans, but at least we’re better than the Italians,’’ Mr. Fourquet said. “But a few weeks into the epidemic, we found ourselves in the same situation as the Italians. So in our collective unconscious, we felt we were much closer to the Club Med of nations of southern Europe than to Germany.’’

It was President Macron himself who invited comparisons with World War II. As he tried to rally the French before the start of a 55-day lockdown, Mr. Macron said repeatedly that France was at “war’’ against the virus. In emotive terms, he compared yesterday’s soldiers with today’s health care workers.

Mr. Macron appeared to be trying to evoke the brighter chapters of France’s wartime narrative — the Resistance and its role in the Allied victory. But events on the ground led others to point to far darker and more painful ones.

With France desperately lacking masks and other protective gear, some health care workers were reduced to wearing garbage bags. The government organized “airlifts’’ of masks from China to France, and the word itself and related images conjured up the humanitarian aid that France once gave to its former African colonies.

“We realized we were an underdeveloped nation,’’ said Philippe Juvin, the head of the emergency department at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris and a politician who is mayor of La Garenne-Colombes, a town just west of Paris. “‘Strange Defeat’ made us aware of weaknesses that we had wanted to ignore, and something similar happened this time.’’

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Bloch, the author of the book, was a historian and World War I veteran. He volunteered to serve on the front lines in 1939 and later joined the Resistance, before being executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

In 1940, as a captain who oversaw fuel supplies at the headquarters of France’s First Army, he enjoyed an insider’s view of France’s defeat: an overly bureaucratic and rigid military leadership, hewing to theories and traditions, was incapable of reacting to the German threat.

While French leaders were re-enacting World War I with an emphasis on infantry and artillery, the Germans came with tanks, airplanes, trucks and motorcycles.

In a painful summary of France’s defeat, Bloch wrote: “Our leaders, or those who acted in their names, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war.’’ He added, “The German victory was, essentially, an intellectual victory.’’

In much the same way, some see an intellectual defeat in France’s handling of the epidemic.

Though France and Germany devote the same share of their economies to health care, France was slow in grasping the risks of the virus and in mobilizing against it, said Jean-Jacques Roche, a specialist on French foreign policy at the University Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas.

France’s response was mired in multiple bureaucratic layers that slowed the transmission of information through a highly centralized system of government, said Mr. Roche, who is also a former director of research at the government’s Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defense.

“France’s administrative structures themselves are being called into question,’’ Mr. Roche said. “Instead of a surface polish, they need to be really rebuilt.’’

In another wartime reference, Mr. Macron said that France would emerge from the current crisis and return to “happy days.’’

But as others consider a post-virus Europe — which Mr. Macron had once dreamed of leading after the retirement of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor — they are not so sure.

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“Le Point,’’ a major weekly magazine, featured Ms. Merkel on its cover with a simple headline: “The Boss.’’ In a meticulous analysis of the handling of the epidemic by France and Germany, “Le Monde’’ concluded that the crisis had led to another replay in the “eternal match between France and Germany, at the end of which the winner always seems to be the same.’’

It was the latest chapter in a relationship that has tortured and defined France since it was defeated by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, putting an end to French hegemony in Europe, said Pierre Vermeren, a historian who teaches at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

“In the 1870s, after France realized that it was outclassed by Germany, there was what was called the German crisis in French thinking,’’ Mr. Vermeren said. “France couldn’t understand: ‘How did the Germans do it? Why are their schools better? Why are their soldiers better trained? Why are their soldiers athletic, and not ours?’

“This has been going for 150 years.’’