OPINION: Covid may yet play one last trick on Macron and France

Emmanuel Macron and the French government face a difficult choice over their Covid restrictions, and the considerations are more than just health-related, says John Lichfield.

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron gambled by not locking down in December. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

What is a poor government to do? There were clear signs last week that France was weathering its fifth wave of the Covid pandemic. Now the dials are spinning in different directions.

Acute cases are falling for the first time since October but new cases – which are 97 percent Omicron – are still booming. There have been over 400,000 Covid cases in France in each of the last two days. Du jamais vu.

First the good news. In France as elsewhere, there is clear evidence that Omicron is less dangerous than Delta or its predecessors. The number of patients entering acute care is dropping sharply as the remains of the Delta wave subsides.  

ANALYSIS: How dangerous are France’s sky-high Covid rates?

Now the bad news. There is evidence that a new form of Omicron – a variant of a variant – is spreading in Denmark, Belgium and now France. The subvariant – Omicron BA.2 – is harder to identify with existing tests. It has been nicknamed “furtive Omicron”.

So far its seems to be no more damaging than Omicron One, which we should perhaps now call “nothing-to-hide” Omicron. Experts fear that it may explain the renewed surge of cases this week. It may even be the beginning of a whole new wave – piling on top of the first Omicron wave just us as Omicron piled on top of the  Delta wave in December.

Professor Antoine Flahaut of the University of Geneva and Karine Lacombe, head of infection diseases at Paris Saint-Antone hospital, both warned this week that the pandemic is far from over.

Dr Lacombe said that Omicron – in all its forms – seemed to be a “whole new illness”, more contagious than other forms of Covid but considerably less harmful. She said Omicron appeared mostly to affect the nose and throat, not to attack the lungs.

So what IS a poor government to do? A few days ago the French government was plainly preparing to cash in its winnings on its December gamble NOT to lock down the country for a fourth time.  Ministers spoke of clear signs that the Omicron wave was cresting with the hospital system unsubmerged.

The December Gamble has been vindicated so far. Admissions to acute care are 16 percent down in a week. All the same, a swelling wave of Omicron, 1 or 2, even if less deadly than Delta, could still put hospitals under acute strain.

With the presidential election now less than three months away, President Emmanuel Macron is again confronted with a dilemma. Does he act in the best interests of the nation’s health? Or does he allow himself to be influenced by the fast-approaching election?

The answer seems to be that the government will kick for touch.

The  health Defence Council met today under President Emmanuel Macron’s chairmanship. A press conference has been announced for this evening which is expected to announce a timetable for relaxing the rules on home-working and the numbers of people allowed in public spaces. Nothing will change for two weeks at least.

Macron has been frustrated by Covid developments, good and bad, in other ways in the last few days.

An international study by the Conseil d’analyse économique – using French, British and other experts – found that Macron’s decision to impose a health pass last July saved 4,000 lives in five months. There were 12,000 Covid deaths in France between July and December. If the vaccination rate had not been rapidly boosted by the health pass, there would have been 16,000.

“Pissing off” (Macron’s phrase) the anti-vaxxers  and anti-passers was wholly justified, it appears.

OPINION: Macron’s vow to ‘piss off’ unvaccinated was deliberate and won’t hurt his election chances

The health-pass study has been widely reported in France but has been overshadowed – doubtless to Macron’s fury – by the media storm over Monsieur Blanquer’s Holiday.

The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was revealed on Tuesday to have announced last-minute and disastrous changes to school Covid testing rules while on a short honeymoon in Ibiza.

A second day of teacher and pupil strikes against the new rules is taking place today. Protesters in bikinis and  Blanquer face masks – some mistake there, surely? – gathered outside the education ministry.

EXPLAINED What links a French teachers’ strike and Ibiza?

The Ibiza saga IS damaging. Blanquer had every right, under the cabinet rules, to take a three-day honeymoon break over the new year. To announce rules that immediately proved unworkable from an upmarket Spanish resort was, as he himself admitted, symbolically stupid.

Macron’s fury is understandable. His decision to keep schools open after the first lockdown has been one of his – and France’s – pandemic successes. The chaos in school testing, which began before Mr Blanquer’s Holiday, has unfairly devalued that achievement.

So what is a poor President, 80 days from the first round a presidential election, to do? Whether he lifts restrictions too soon, or he refuses to lift restrictions, he will be pummelled by his rivals.

Macron has himself sought to use the pandemic for electoral gain at times. And yet his Covid record in the last year – as the 4,000 saved lives proves – is pretty good.

Is the pandemic going to play one last trick on him?

Member comments

  1. Only half the story. 4000 lives saved because the French were coerced into taking the vaccine. How many lives were lost because they were deterred from taking it earlier, voluntarily – and who or what was responsible for that ?

    1. Whether you consider them coerced or not is immaterial , it worked. Sometimes people need to be coerced for the good of the whole of society. You don’t appear to have grasped human nature which avoids what it can while it can.

    2. So who or what exactly was “deterring” people from getting the vacccine? The problem early on wasn’t deterrance, is that you couldn’t bloody GET a vaccine appointment!

    3. With your superior “knowledge” on most topics, maybe you can enlighten us on who was “responsible” – were they “deterred” or as suggested with a lack of vaccine supplies, appointments were not available.

  2. Why do you care?

    You just like to knock anything that monsieur macron does even when it is proven to save lives, kind of pathetic really.

  3. Overall I think the French government has made the right calls and mostly at the right times too (though some of those border closures should have happened sooner to slow the spread of new variants). They have proven that they actually understand their population and have taken appropriate measures to get them to take the right action (i.e. getting vaccinated).

    As to Covid itself – at the very start of the pandemic there was the hope that as the virus evolved it would, as many viruses do, trade off lethality for transmissability (probably not a word, but hey ho), and that appears to be exactly what has happened. So in this the best case scenario has been realised and we just have to hope that the future evolution of the virus and all its variations continues in the same direction (on that note, any more news on the Deltacron variant in Cyprus)?

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Students blockade Paris schools in election protest

Students blockaded five schools in Paris on Tuesday to demonstrate their political concerns ahead of the second round of the Presidential elections on Sunday.

Students blockade Paris schools in election protest

In addition to the five blockaded lycées, the université Paris 8 in Saint-Denis was closed “for security reasons”.

The students – who are too young to make their voices heard at the ballot box – were protesting against the options available to voters in the second round – where incumbent Emmanuel Macron takes on far-right leader Marine Le Pen – and follows earlier student protests at the Sorbonne.

Many were demonstrating in protest at what they saw as inadequate policies on climate change and social issues from both candidates in the final round of voting, as well as the lack of choice for the electorate.

“It is a continuation of what happened at the Sorbonne,” one student told AFP. “We want a third social round, because the two candidates qualified for the second round have no social or ecological programmes. 

“We want to give a new breath to this Fifth Republic a little at the end of the race.

“We are fed up with the fascist state. We are here against Marine Le Pen, against fascism, for the climate and against capitalism,” another student at the lycée Louis-le-Grand in the capital’s fifth arrondissement said.

“We have blocked all the entrances. We will stay there as long as possible.”

About 100 students blockaded the prestigious school. Some students chant slogans against the “Front National” – the former name of second-round candidate Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party.

The blockades ended peacefully at the end of the day.