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

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

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

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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. “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…

  2. 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.

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