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ANALYSIS: Are France’s new Covid rules enough for Macron to avoid a lockdown?

Faced with a growing fifth wave of Covid cases France has opted, unlike many of its neighbours, to avoid more lockdowns and curfews and instead focus on vaccine boosters. John Lichfield examines the political risks of this strategy.

French president Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron has avoided for now another lockdown, but will it help him at the polls? Photo: Benoit Tessier/AFP

The Zemmour virus is receding, for now. Another nasty virus is regaining ground.

Both developments – the puncturing of the racist pundit Eric Zemmour’s popularity and the arrival of a fifth wave of Covid-19 – have big implications for the presidential election in April.

Both could damage President Emmanuel Macron. Both could yet help him.

The resurgence of Covid-19 in France was expected. Acute cases remain, so far, within manageable bounds but new infections – now approaching an average of 20,000 a day – have almost doubled in the past week.

President Macron and his government have ruled out for now the kind of new social restrictions which have provoked serious unrest (much of it fomented by the far right) in Belgium and the Netherlands in recent days.

The most significant announcement by the health minister, Olivier Véran yesterday was that third or booster vaccinations would be available to all adults from Saturday, five months after their second injection – not six months later as now.

READ ALSO France opens boosters to all and sets 7 month limit on health pass

He set off an avalanche of third dose bookings, 1.2m in 12 hours. Good.

There are also “covid riots” in France but they are 6,750 kilometres away from Paris in Guadeloupe and Martinique, the French départements in the Caribbean.

The violent protests there are nominally about the firing of health workers who refuse to be vaccinated. They are driven, in fact, as much by the island’s unhealthy love-hate, dependence-rejection relationship with metropolitan France as by simplistic arguments about state control and personal liberty.

Both sets of riots are a warning, all the same, that 20 months and five waves of Covid-19 have generated a dangerous pandemic fatigue. The exception, it seems, is Britain where many (not all) people appear complacent about one of the worst Covid records of any large democracy.

Parts of the British media – even parts of the BBC – are revelling in the new Covid surge in Europe. They ignore the fact that this is the continuation of the “Delta variant” wave which started in Britain in the summer and produced inflated levels of British cases and deaths while most of Europe was spared.

Psycho-analysing Britain at present is a thankless task. Let us return to France.

President Macron had hoped by now to be talking – as he did in his TV address earlier this month – about the booming French economy and his reform plans for a second mandate. Instead, he is once again forced to make a difficult choice. Should he take draconian action – curfews, lockdowns – to flatten the new wave in its infancy? Or should he allow France to ride the new Covid wave in relative social freedom in the hope that the country’s high level of vaccination will prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by Christmas?

Since the pandemic began in France in March 2020, Macron has alternated between taking decisive early action and hesitating – and then having his hand forced by events. I recall giving him only 5 out of ten for his management of the first 12 months of the pandemic.

I think he has done much better since then. The health pass, announced on July 12th, was a master-stroke. Without it, France would not now have such high levels of vaccination (90 percent of adults, 76 percent of the total population) and would now be facing harsh, new, social restrictions.

The announcements by the health minister, Oliver Veran, on Thursday fall into the wait-and-hope rather than decisive-and-early category. The wearing of masks in indoor public will return. Booster doses will become a new condition of the health pass from January 15th.

READ ALSO Calendar: When do France’s new Covid measures come into force?

Is all of this enough? Who knows? No one can say for certain what has produced this fifth wave of a pandemic which had – once again – appeared to be under control. Various plausible explanations are given: cold weather forcing people indoors; slackening respect for distancing measures; fading vaccine effectiveness; the tenacity and virulence of the nasty Delta variant.

Almost two years into the pandemic, the epidemiological experts are still struggling to know how the virus works.

All of the epidemiological experts, that is, except Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Both have made statements this week suggesting that health passes, social restrictions, even vaccines are wrong-headed, overrated and quite possibly useless.

They – and other candidates – hope to gain electoral advantage from either Covid fatigue or Covid calamity in the next couple of months.

Depending on the outcome, they will claim: a) Macron didn’t do enough;  b) Macron did too much.

Macron’s electoral hopes do not entirely stand or fall on Covid but they will be heavily influenced by it. If France can avoid a new lockdown or even new curfews, Macron’s handling of the pandemic will have been vindicated. He should then win easily.

If there is a new lockdown, all bets are off.

The shrinking of the “Zemmour virus” is a similarly double-edged sword for the President.

If Zemmour deflates completely (unlikely) Marine Le Pen will be Macron’s opponent in the two candidate second round on April 24th and Macron will defeat her. If Zemmour deflates only a little, both he and Le Pen could be edged out of the run-off.

Macron would then face whichever centre-right candidate emerges from the Les Républicains primary next week. That, as I have long argued, would be a much tougher battle for Macron.

READ ALSO Who’s who in the crowded race to unseat Macron

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MONEY

Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website www.service-public.fr. This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.

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