ANALYSIS: 12 months on, is Macron winning his ‘war’ on Covid in France?

Has it really been a year? It feels like it was only yesterday. It also feels like a century, writes John Lichfield as he judges how the the French president and the country have handled the Covid crisis over the last 12 months.

ANALYSIS: 12 months on, is Macron winning his 'war' on Covid in France?
Emmanuel Macron on March 16,2020, declaring 'war' on Covid. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Twelve months ago today, President Emmanuel Macron declared war on Covid-19. Several words instantly became part of our everyday lives: confinement; attestation; télétravail; gestes barrières.

When Macron gave his televised address, plunging the country into lockdown, the death toll in France from Covid was 148. There were 6,633 confirmed cases.

READ ALSO The 22 French words we learned during lockdown

A year later, the toll is 90,762 and rising, by an average of 300 a day. There have been more than 4,000,000 cases. The country has been locked down twice and has lived under varying degrees of curfew for the whole of this calendar year. Weekend lockdowns are in force in the north and the deep south east. A weekend, or complete, lockdown threatens in the Paris area.

Essential parts of the French mode de vivre have vanished. Remember bises, handshakes, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, bars?

But the sacrifice and disruption have been global. How did France fare in comparison to other similar nations? How well did Macron – and France – fight his “war on Covid”?

What did France get wrong? What did it get right? What has the pandemic taught us about the strengths and weaknesses of a country that prides itself on (and pays a fortune for) its public service?

I will split the year into four parts.

Part one: first lockdown, March to May. Score 5/10

France was culpably slow on testing and masks (and the government sometimes less than honest in its statements). The government said (over and over) that it must follow scientific advice. The advice kept changing.

The administration was very thorough and capable in building a state-assisted, furlough economy. The French model was widely copied, notably by Britain.

The lockdown was broadly respected – and effective. Deaths were kept low compared to some countries. The health system took the shock.

Part two: an optimistic summer, June to September. Score 5/10

We thought it was all over. We know now that it wasn’t. The country relaxed too soon. The government took its eye off the ball. As a result, we had…

Part three:  a second lockdown, late October to mid-December. Score 7/10

The government (still following the scientific advice) imposed a second lock down promptly – but less completely than before. Schools remained open. As a result, France had among the best Covid-figures in Europe for a while in December and January. 

Part four: Variants, curfews and the vaccine roll-out, January to March 2021. Score 3/10

For six weeks or more, the French vaccine roll-out was a disgrace. It is now finally taking off. But why did it take so long? Problems with the EU-supply chain are not a full explanation. For many weeks France used only half the doses it received.

READ ALSO 6 reasons the French vaccine rollout has been so slow 

In late January, Macron boasted that, on this occasion, he was not following the scientific advice. He was warned that the UK variant of Covid would cause a new explosion of cases by March or April.  Nonetheless, he rejected pressure for a third confinement. Instead, we had 6pm curfews and local weekend lockdowns.

For several weeks, it looked as if Macron had made the right call. Now, with cases and acute cases rising fast, it looks as though he may have blundered. We will know soon.

Overall average for the year: 5/10. Could have done better.

Amongst the big, industrialised countries with which comparison can reasonably be made, France’s record is mid-table. Given the fact that France spends so much of its wealth on state services (54 percent, in a normal year; 62.8 percent last year) that is not a fantastic record.

In terms of deaths, France has been better than Britain or Italy or Spain or Belgium or the Netherlands. In terms of health care and economic support, it has been better than the United States.  Its vaccine programme – 17th best in the world until last week – has been a calamity wrapped in a mystery.

The standard explanation of France’s poor performance on vaccines, mask and tests is that the country is administratively top heavy and slow to respond to new challenges. And yet the economic support system for individuals and businesses was created overnight and rolled out efficiently. As a result France has, so far, taken a less dramatic economic hit than Britain.

The paraphernalia of attestations, filling out your own licence to go to the shops or to have a stroll, was classically French. And yet somehow, for France, it worked.

Another thing that France has, I believe, got right (some may not agree) is to have kept the schools more or less open after the first lockdown ended in May. This has taken a huge effort, and risk, on the part of France’s sometimes maligned teaching profession. They deserve more praise than they have received.

But then the vaccines…. How could France, the country that invented vaccines, have got it so wrong for so long?

Partly, I think, the government was misled into taking a plodding, methodical approach by the opinion polls late last year showing that only 4 in 10 French people wanted to be vaccinated against a virus causing the worst pandemic in a century.

READ ALSO How worried should France be about its vaccine sceptics?

Partly, I think, President Macron drifted.

Maybe his own brush with Covid-19 at Christmas hit him harder than we have been told. Maybe he was frustrated by the fiasco (so far) of France’s own vaccine-development programmes.

He failed – and Prime Minister Jean Castex and health minister Oliver Véran failed – to see the obvious until several weeks too late. The country needed a good news narrative. It needed a sense that an unending story would, someday, end.

A successful vaccine programme would have given the French that narrative. A vaccine tsar or tsarina should have been appointed to force all the competing interests and ideas – doctors, pharmacies, vaccinodromes, national health administration, local councils – to march in the same direction. 

 The failings of the EU vaccine supply programme made success on an insolent British scale impossible. All the same, far more could have been done. And is now being done

In the last week – before the worries about AstraZeneca –  over 1,600,000 doses were given in France, compared to 5,700,000 doses in the previous ten weeks.  Concerns over the side effects from AZ  – though exaggerated and temporary –  may now slow the programme again.

As the first year of the war on Covid ends, France finds itself in a scary race between an accelerating but still fragile vaccine programme and a pandemic surging menacingly once more in Paris and in parts of the far south and north.

The vax programme has already reduced dramatically deaths among the very elderly. If acute cases and deaths can be held down until vaccines show their effect more widely, Macron may get away with his puzzling double decision in late January: first, to ignore problems with the vaccine rollout and, second, to refuse a third lockdown.

If deaths and cases spiral and a belated third lockdown becomes inevitable – just as Britain is opening up – France (and Macron) will be in trouble. They will have lost the first phase of what may yet be a very long war.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.