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POLITICS

ANALYSIS: Politics and pandemic – what lies ahead for France in 2022?

As another extraordinary year draws to a close, John Lichfield looks ahead to what 2022 has in store for France - from the continuing health crisis to an unpredictable presidential election.

Macron sits at a desk
Emmanuel Macron faces some tough choices in 2022. Photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP

Groundhog time is now measured in years not days. Much of 2021 has resembled, miserably, 2020.

New year 2022 will begin as 2021 did with a towering, new wave of Covid and the French government determined to avoid a new lockdown.

There were some surprises in the last year, all the same. There may be other surprises on the way.

Who would have guessed last January that France, the most vax-resistant country in Europe, would have vaccinated 90 percent of adults and almost 80 percent of its whole population by the year’s end?

READ ALSO 6 reasons why France’s vaccination programme improved so dramatically

Who would have predicted (not me) the political rise and partial fall of Eric Zemmour, the racist essayist and TV pundit?

This year began with grim warnings about the supposed popularity of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and the possibility that she might defeat President Emmanuel Macron in 2022.

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

The new conventional wisdom is that Le Pen is a 53-years-old has-been. That’s also mistake or at least premature.

Here then is my first, hazardous prediction for the year ahead. Le Pen will come close to reaching the second round of the presidential election in April.

She may even sneak into second place in the first round on April 10th and face Macron again two weeks later – where she will be soundly beaten but not so soundly as in 2017. That WOULD be the end of her but not the end of the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic French Right. Beware of 2027.

Who would have predicted at the start of the year (not me) that Valérie Pécresse would emerge as the champion of the scattered and unpopular “moderate” and “Republican” Right?

Here is my second, cautious, prediction for 2022. If Le Pen does not reach the second round on April 24th, Pécresse will. In other words, I am writing off Eric Zemmour and I am also writing off (less riskily) all seven piecemeal candidates of the Left.

If Pécresse does face Macron in Round Two, it will be a close-run thing. I suspect that Macron would win. I would not advise anyone to bet money on it.

Much will depend on the outcome of the great Omicron gamble that President Macron took on Monday. Here we really are in groundhog country.

In January 2021, France was faced with a new Covid wave, driven by a nasty new variant, the Alpha or British variant. This week, France is confronted with its largest ever Covid wave, driven by an enigmatic new variant, Omicron.

Last January Macron chose to continue existing curfews but refused to lock the country down for a third time. He gained three months, in which the economy recovered well and the vaccine programme, after a shaky start, began to operate successfully.

By the end of March new cases had risen to 200,000 every week. There were over 5,000 Covid patients in acute care. There were over 200 deaths a day. The government was obliged to impose a partial lockdown from April 3rd to May 3rd.

Now look at the present situation. There have been around 200,000 cases A DAY in the last couple of days – seven times as many as late March (albeit with much, much more testing).

There are over 3,400 cases in acute care. There are 170 deaths a day. The positive rate for tests is just under 8 percent. In late March, it was only slightly higher than that.

In other words, the current pandemic figures are much worse than they were last January. They are almost as bad as, or even worse than, they were when the government locked the country down in April. 

Nonetheless, despite pressure from scientists and some ministers, a Health Defence Council chaired by Emmanuel Macron decided on Monday to introduce relatively minor restrictions (no sandwiches on trains; no drinking at bars) but no new lockdowns or curfews.

READ ALSO France announces restrictions on gatherings and orders home-working

Déjà vu, all over again? Macron’s gamble was partially successful in January 2021. Now the political and health stakes are even higher and the situation more difficult to read.

The 2021 Alpha and Delta vintages of Covid were nastier than the March 2020 version. Omicron is much faster-moving than either – scarily so – but there is some evidence that it causes milder sickness, especially amongst the vaccinated.

Almost 90 percent of French adults are double-vaxxed and 40 percent and rising (over 22m people) are triple-vaxxed.  The French health service has been exhausted by two years of pandemic. Numbers in acute care are already approaching crisis levels in some areas. Even if Omicron is relatively mild, it could push French hospitals to breaking point.

Macron, like Boris Johnson, believes that the country is not ready to accept a new lockdown. His decision is based on the educated hope that Omicron will not be So Bad As All That.

Johnson’s decision was partly political; Macron’s was partly electoral. If there had not been a presidential election in April, I believe that Macron would have taken the most cautious scientific advice and imposed tougher restrictions.

He may get away with it. He may have read the public mood correctly. He may have judged the severity of the Omicron virus more accurately than the experts can.

An Institut Pasteur study published yesterday modelled several reassuring French scenarios for the weeks ahead – and a couple of calamitous ones.

If Macron got it wrong, there will be a great crisis in acute care and belated lockdowns or curfews by mid-March – just before an election in which he plans to run as a “safe pair of hands”.

My prediction? I have none.

Happy 2022 everybody.

Member comments

  1. After the government announcement on Monday I walked away from the television shaking my head and declaring “They’ve pulled the punch!”. It seemed to me that the measures taken were modest and would prove unequal to the task of rolling back the fifth wave.
    Now I’m not so sure. What Macron and his advisers may have realised is that the evidence from South Africa is that Omicron may rise to a terrible peak, scything down tens of thousands in a day, but after just a few weeks it simmers down rapidly.
    If that experience is repeated here in France then February or possible even late January will see new Covid cases declining dramatically.
    Furthermore, the Omicron version of Covid does not cause such serious symptoms as other variants. In terms of its impact on the totality of a nation’s population, it may actually provide beneficial long-term immunity.
    Put this all together and you begin to understand why, in avoiding heavier-handed and unpopular measures such as a New Year’s Eve curfew à la 2020, the Macron Administration may have been a great deal more shrewd than I realised.
    Let’s just hope so.

  2. “Almost 90 percent of French adults are double-vaxxed and 40 percent and rising (over 22m people) are triple-vaxxed. The French health service has been exhausted by two years of pandemic. Numbers in acute care are already approaching crisis levels in some areas. ”

    So….are you saying the vaccines are ineffective?? Strange how numbers in acute care are approaching crisis levels if 90 percent of adults are vaccinated…

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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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