‘Macron will be held responsible’ – Will the French president’s latest Covid-19 measures be enough?

Will French President Emmanuel Macron's new lockdown measures be enough to slow down France's soaring Covid-19 rates and begin reopening the country "in mid May" as promised?

'Macron will be held responsible' - Will the French president's latest Covid-19 measures be enough?
Children in French schools have been wearing protective face masks for months. Photo: GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

On Wednesday evening, Macron announced that the limited lockdown in place in 19 départements would be extended to the whole country in a bid to halt the spiralling Covid-19 rates.

Schools, which remained open during the second wave in the autumn, would close for a three-week period, with a fourth week of distance-learning for secondary and high schools.

“The education of our children is nonnegotiable,” Macron said. But, he added: “we must slow down the virus.”

Full details on school closures and the help parents are entitled to HERE.

How are people in France reacting?

The measures were met with a mixture of resignation and anger, despite Macron’s suggestion that France could begin envisioning a return to normal life by mid-May.

“Lockdown, the sequel… and the end?” Le Figaro headlined its front page Thursday, while Le Parisien newspaper said Macron was defending his strategy of “slowing without shutting down” even though “the situation has never been so dangerous or complicated.”

As during the first lockdown last spring, parents are scrambling to make arrangements for another round of distance learning.

“It was absolutely necessary to close the schools, even if it will be complicated for parents, and especially young children, to manage this situation,” Laure, 44, a researcher with two young boys who lives in Paris, said after Macron’s TV address.

Will the new measures be enough?

Antoine Flahault, an epidemiologist and Director of the Geneva Institute for Global Health, told The Local:

“It was important to take strong measures quickly in France.

Flahault, who has long called on the French government to close down schools, said the new measures “should make it possible to regain control over the epidemic,” because they were nationwide and included school closures.

It’s impossible to say if this will be sufficient or not,” Pascal Crépey, an epidemiologist and professor at the Rennes School of Higher Public Health Studies (EHESP), told The Local.

Because the partial lockdown had only been in place since March 19th, in 16 of the 19 départements concerned and one week in the three remaining ones, the impact of the reinforced measures had yet to manifest, Crépey explained.

UPDATE: These are the rules of the partial lockdown extended across France

But “the message is stronger than before,” he added.

That Macron himself was the one making the announcement “adds some weight” to the importance of the message, Crépey said. 

“It shows that, in the end, he will be held responsible for handling the crisis.”

“There is one thing we know: whatever measures are taken, if it’s are not accepted and understood by the population, it won’t be efficient.”

Crépey belongs to the part of the scientific community who have argued for keeping schools open, because “schools are not an amplifier of the epidemic, simply because children transmit the virus less and are less susceptible to infection.”

However, he said closing schools would enhance the overall impact of the current lockdown compared to the partial one in place since mid March, because it would lead to more parents staying home from work in order to take care of their children.

The objective remains the same: reducing our contacts with friends, family and colleagues,” he said.

Should Macron have declared a strict lockdown?

Apart from the school closures, the big difference between the current lockdown and the previous ones is that people can move around more or less freely.

While banning inter-regional travel, the government scrapped the attestation (permission slip) for outings of less than 10 kilometres from the home.

Hospital chiefs in France have long asked for tougher measures, as they struggle to cope with the pressure of new Covid patients that fill up their intensive care wards.

“We are in a situation at the brink of disaster,” Frédéric Adnet, head of the emergency department of the Avicenne hospital in the Parisian suburb Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s hardest hit département, told Le Parisien.

But epidemiologist Crépey said a strict, stay-at-home lockdown limiting outdoor activities “wouldn’t have made any sense from a scientific point of view.”

“We’re not where we were in 2020. We know that the virus spreads mostly indoors,” he said. “So it makes sense to allow people go outside.”

Will the government have to extend the measures?

In March 2020, the lockdown was supposed to last two weeks. It lasted two months.

Director of the Geneva Institute for Global Health Antoine Flahault said the government may have to consider prolonging the school closures, “if the trend proves to be favourable.”

“Three weeks of school closures will not be enough to bring the new infections down to less than 5,000 per day,” Flahault said.

Back in autumn, reaching and maintaining 5,000 new Covid positives per day was the goal Macron set to allow for a gradual reopening of the country.

This time, he mentioned no such goal, although he did say he envisaged beginning to reopen closed sectors “in mid May.”

“There will still be time to prolong the measures to arrive at a minimal circulation of the virus, putting the country out of danger long term,” Flahault said.

Health Minister Olivier Véran said the number of new Covid cases could peak in the next seven to ten days, while intensive care cases in hospitals might top out by the end of April.

“The goal is to suppress this wave of the epidemic… so that it’s as small as possible,” he told France Inter radio.

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ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.