OPINION: Macron was right to delay a third French lockdown, but would be wrong to avoid one now

If Emmanuel Macron is a one term President – I say if  - political historians will focus on one day in which the young head of state abandoned caution and resolved to go it alone with regards to his Covid lockdown policy, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron was right to delay a third French lockdown, but would be wrong to avoid one now
Is Emmanuel Macron trying to protect his reputation as the 'first epidemiologist'? Photo: Benoit Tessier/AFP

The day was January 29th this year, when Macron rejected the advice of epidemiologists and his prime minister and health minister and decided to spare France a third Covid lockdown.

On that same day, talking to a group of foreign correspondents, Macron also made a bizarre statement, which remains an indignant obsession of the UK popular media (but was scarcely reported in France). Admitting that he had no evidence, he said that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for the over-65s.

Macron has since gone back on that baseless claim. He has refused to apologise for his decision to refuse a pre-emptive national lockdown despite warnings that the new British variant of Covid-19 would cause an avalanche of cases by late February or mid-March.

It did not – not really. But it has now.

Over the last few days, France has jumped to around 40,000 new cases a day (more than 80 percent of which are the faster-moving and maybe more lethal UK variant).

READ ALSO Just how bad is the third wave of Covid cases hitting France?

The number of patients in intensive care nationwide is approaching 5,000, topping the peak of the second wave in November but still far  short of the worst of the first wave last April. Hospital chiefs in the Paris area warned at the weekend that they may, within two or three weeks, have to decide which Covid patients to try to save and which to allow to die.

This nightmare is called triage, a grim choice familiar in war-zones but not in the hospitals of the capital of one of the world’s wealthiest nations. This is what we have been sacrificing our freedom to avoid for more than a year. Now, if the Paris hospital chiefs are to be believed, it’s going to happen anyway.

Is that all Macron’s fault, as opposition politicians and many strident voices on social media claim? Not entirely. We should accept, after a year of unpleasant surprises, that we are struggling against a disease which defeats expectations and will continue to weary and worry us for many months to come.

Even those continental countries which locked down more drastically than France in January are also suffering a new surge in Covid cases. So are parts of the United States.

Macron’s decision to avoid a lockdown was hugely popular, it should be remembered, supported by around 70 percent of French people in polls until a couple of weeks ago. He judged that a third ‘confinement’, when figures were relatively good, would be calamitous for national morale and economic well-being (and perhaps also his chances of re-election next April and May).

The political attacks are inevitable all the same. Macron made a very personal decision. The Elysée  let it be known that he had become an epidemiological expert, even studying reports on the traces of Covid in waste-water in the Paris area.

“The President was right and everyone else was wrong,” a source close to Macron said in late February..

Since then the Covid statistics have soared off the chart.

In truth, Macron’s decision on January 29th has, in part, been vindicated by the eight weeks of relative freedom and economic activity.  I think that Macron has got two things much more wrong than his decision to spare France a third confinement from early February.

Firstly, as he has now admitted, he was very slow to grasp the importance of a rapid and efficient vaccination campaign. Yes, supplies through the EU procurement programme were lower than expected but France was using only just over half the doses it received for first five or six weeks of the roll-out.

Secondly, the series of regionally restricted and confusing measures introduced over the last three or four weeks have been ill-considered and possibly counter-productive.

It would have been much better to go for a third, national lockdown with clear rules in mid-March. One is left with the impression that Macron, and the government, were as much trying to protect the President’s reputation as the lockdown-defying First Epidemiologist as the nation’s health and well-being.

The vaccine programme is now much, much better.

Partly, this is because Pfizer and Moderna (and soon Johnson & Johnson) are providing the EU with doses in tens of millions. The sainted AstraZeneca, which it is sacrilegious to criticise in the UK, is still screwing up massively (only a third of its promised doses for the EU in the second quarter of the year).

As things stand (1 million doses in three days at the end of last week) France should overshoot by quite a margin its target of 10 million first vaccinations by April 15th. It should be able to hit its next targets of 20 million by mid-May and 30 million by mid-June. The effect on deaths is already being felt. The impact on infections should also start to be felt in the coming month.

But what should Macron do about the present jumble of rules representing a ‘lockdown light’  in 19 départements covering about one third of France’s 66 million population? They appear not to be working. Should schools be closed? Should the lockdown be more draconian and nationwide?

It is rumoured that the President will address the nation on television on Wednesday night – for the first time this year. That’s usually a sign that tough new restrictions are coming.

READ ALSO Lockdown and Macron on TV – What can we expect in France this week?

But reports in the French media suggest that, in fact, Macron plans to justify his strategy rather than change it, except perhaps at the edges. If so, that may be his biggest mistake of all.

If he wants to win the election next year – if he wants even to be in a position to run – Macron needs to be prepared to anger and frustrate the country in the short term. He needs to heed the scientists, and the past experience of France and others, and accept that only something approaching a full lockdown can check the  UK variant-generated third wave of Covid until vaccines show their worth. 

Member comments

  1. Interesting article but I do have an issue with the way the author seems to want to denigrate AZ’s vaccine efforts. In one breath he seems to blame them for not providing enough vaccines and then states that 50% of vaccine supplies were, at one point, not used. It it is important, I think, to remember that AZ is supplying the vaccine at cost (unlike the other suppliers) and: in their opinion: according to the contract agreed with the EU commission. Of course they aren’t perfect and what the truth of the supply issue we may never know but without their efforts the pandemic would be much worse in France and elsewhere.

    1. Agree. There’s no reason for the author to damn the entire UK with sarcasm about attitudes to the AZ vaccine. We don’t have access to the contracts to work out what the EU fuss is based on. We hear some MEPs coming out with bizarre “reasoning”, even bizarre & aggressive. At the same time we listen to scientists & we’re mighty glad to have it as part of such a well-advanced programme. Why would we criticise?

  2. For France to jab 30million by end of June that means the EU would have to have jabbed 200million plus 2nd shots. Seems unlikely.

  3. Give it a rest. They are selling it at cost? Yes but still making a good profit with lots of free publicity thanks to the British guttersnipe press. Let’s face it, Macron has always been totally out of his depth with little knowledge of how to communicate with people. Unfortunately he will get another term because his direct opposition is too dire to contemplate.

    1. You live in France? Count yourself lucky they’re selling it at all. The French Govt simultaneously denigrates it and begs for more deliveries.

  4. “Even those continental countries which locked down more drastically than France in January are also suffering a new surge in Covid cases. So are parts of the United States.”

    This should be sufficient evidence that lockdowns do not work. The most locked-down states here in the US are the ones with the most problems. Something is amiss in your calculations, don’t you think? Protect the vulnerable but leave others (along with the vaccinated) alone, and open up your country.

  5. Journalists are supposed to question and probe, and this piece borders on being sychphantic towards the EU and what is happening here in France with vaccines both now and in the near future. The piece states that the vaccine program is ‘now much, much better’ and that Pfizer and Moderna will be providing 10’s of million of doses to the EU in total!

    One, the program couldn’t be any worse but saying it is much much better is disingenuous to the debacle of the past 2 1/2 months. Two, these two companies have been contracted by US government to be delivering between them, 23m vaccines per week to the US beginning tomorrow. This does not even include the J&J vaccines. It will be fascinating to see how the contractual delivery numbers for the J&J vaccine pan out, as those numbers will show the negotiating acumen of every nation and their desire to lift each nation out of this pandemic.

  6. The tone of the author’s articles on AZ doesn’t do him much credit. Seems, like the French Govt and the EU, he’s having a hard time accepting that the Rosbifs have produced a vaccine that will save France’s bacon. What vaccine has France produced? What has been France’s contribution to the fight against Covid19? They’re lucky that Germany took in some of their patients last year. No John, it’s not “sacrilege” in the UK to criticize AZ, there are plenty of sceptics amongst both the media and the British public. The UK Govt has taken the view that it’s science that decides how effective it is, and non-scientists should have common sense to the advice : the WHO and EMA, and a host of other bodies, have declared it safe. That doesn’t mean 100% safe as nothing is, not even paracetamol. You weigh benefit and risk, that’s the basis of all drugs. Macron and Von der Leyen in particular just can’t swallow that Britain is riding to the rescue of Europe, especially post-Brexit. They predicted it would be a disaster, so it’s awkward for them. I feel their pain. So while simultaneously denigrating AZ they scream to have more of it delivered. A 5 year-old could see through their hypocrisy.

  7. I’m a real fan of The Local but I’m starting to tire of John Litchfield’s chippy, anti-British sentiment which undermines the credibility of (most of) his articles. If “the popular press” excludes The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian, then understand that these broadsheets are not “obsessed” with Macron’s criticism with Astra Zeneca any more than the tabloids are. But they recognise when a French President is part of an almighty shambolic failure of the EU and its nations to properly implement a vaccination programme with urgency. France is playing catch-up. And we all hope they DO catch up. Because lockdowns don’t save lives; they merely delay the deaths of the vulnerable once transmission rates rise again – inevitable once lockdown restrictions are eased. Inevitable, that is, unless sufficient numbers are vaccinated. Because vaccines DO save lives. Macron is a diminished figure in the eyes of the British public – and no one wants Le Pen, for goodness sake. So he needs to show some humility and cut out the face-saving denials. I’m 62 and I’ll be getting my second jab on May 15. Thank you, Oxford, and UK procurement.

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Macron seeks allies as new French parliament opens

France's lower house of parliament reopens Tuesday after an election upset for President Emmanuel Macron whose centrist allies are little closer to building a stable majority, putting Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne's job potentially on the line.

Macron seeks allies as new French parliament opens

After this month’s ballot brought surges for the far right and hard left, opposition forces have made clear that they will not be lured into a lasting arrangement to support Macron’s government which is 37 seats short of a majority.

Borne and other senior Macron backers have been trying to win over individual right-wing and moderate left parliamentarians to bolster their ranks, with one MP telling AFP that “the phones are running hot.”

But Olivier Marleix, head of the conservative Republicans group seen as most compatible with Macron, said that “we have much better things to do today than selling ourselves piecemeal”.

“It’s about making progress for the French people,” he told Europe 1 radio on Monday.

But he added that his MPs would “do everything we can to reach an agreement with the government” on an upcoming draft law to boost households’ purchasing power in the face of food and energy inflation.

“It’s not in the interest of parties who have just been elected” to make a long-term deal to support the government, said Marc Lazar, a professor at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

First woman speaker

The first days of the new National Assembly will be taken up with elections for the speaker and other senior parliamentary officials and committee chiefs.

Pro-Macron candidate Yael Braun-Pivet is expected to be the first woman in French history to claim the speaker’s chair in a series of votes Tuesday.

The same day, parties with at least 15 members will be able to form official groups, which enjoy more influence and speaking time.

One key question is whether Thursday’s vote to head the Finance Committee — with its extensive powers to scrutinise government spending — will be won by an MP from the far-right National Rally (RN).

Led by Macron’s defeated presidential opponent Marine Le Pen, the RN would usually have a claim on the post as the largest single opposition party.

It could face a stiff challenge if the NUPES left alliance encompassing Greens, Communists, Socialists and the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) can agree on a joint candidate.

Confidence vote?

Next week could see exchanges heat up in the chamber, as government chief Borne delivers a speech setting out her policy priorities.

It is not yet clear whether Borne will call the traditional vote of confidence following her appearance — which is not strictly required under France’s Fifth Republic constitution.

Macron told AFP at the weekend that he had “decided to confirm (his) confidence in Elisabeth Borne” and asked her to continue talks to find either allies for the government in parliament or at least backing for crucial confidence and budget votes.

Macron has ruled out both tax increases and higher public borrowing in any compromise deals with other parties.

After the president promised a “new government of action… in the first few days of July” once he returns from this week’s G7 and NATO meetings in Germany and Belgium, some observers see the compressed calendar as ambitious.

“In all other European countries, when they’re in talks to form a government, it can take months” rather than the days Macron has allowed, political scientist Lazar said.

Even as the government projects business almost as usual, hard-left LFI especially has vowed to try to prevent key proposals like a flagship reform to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65.

Party deputy chief Adrien Quatennens said Sunday there was “no possible agreement” with Macron, saying cooperation would “make no sense”.

“We haven’t heard (Macron) move or back down one iota on pension reform” or other controversial policies, he added.