Macron loses his bet, and imposes a third confinement in France

TO THOSE who saw him at the Elysée Palace on January 29th, President Emmanuel Macron appeared more tense than usual. The number of new covid-19 cases had been steadily rising again in France, and the announcement of a fresh lockdown was expected that evening. “Imminent reconfinement” ran the headline of the Journal du Dimanche, a Sunday paper which, presumably, had been briefed in advance. That evening, Jean Castex, the prime minister, was sent out to face the cameras. He surprised the country with measures that left the existing rules almost untouched. “Our duty,” he declared, “is to do everything to avoid a new lockdown.”

Two months later, on March 31st, covid-19 decided otherwise. In a televised address to the nation watched by 31m people, or nearly half the population, Mr Macron announced that he was putting the country into a third national lockdown, this time for a month. The new rules will come into effect on April 3rd. They will restrict all movement to within 10 kilometres (6 miles) of the home. Schools will be closed for 3-4 weeks from Monday. A national evening curfew, already in place, will continue to apply countrywide. Non-essential shops will shut, and home-working be made compulsory where possible.

It is hard not to see this as a personal defeat for the French president. Mr Macron has made liberal use of all the centralised powers afforded him by the Fifth Republic’s constitution to run the country’s health policy during the pandemic, more or less, from the Elysée. His decision in January went against explicit scientific advice given to him that day by a group of epidemiologists including Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of his scientific advisory council. They warned that, with the “le variant britannique” (B.1.1.7, a strain first found in Britain) beginning to circulate, the number of new daily hospital admissions would start to take off again in February, and accelerate exponentially in March.

Yet Mr Macron, who had by then taken to poring over medical journals late into the night, was not convinced. The previous year, also against scientific advice, he had re-opened schools before the summer holidays. Studies of performance by primary pupils, says a presidential aide, show that during the two months of home-schooling that took place last year, children fell badly behind, especially those from families in poorer areas. Keeping classrooms open became a totem of Mr Macron’s health policy. As did the mental health of the young. In January he ordered universities to give students one day a week of contact teaching. Besides which, Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, and others urged him not to lockdown again in order to keep jobs and firms going.

Faced with these trade-offs, Mr Macron took a bet that, he hoped, would steer a narrow path to avoid lockdown. On the one hand, he imposed less drastic measures to control infection—notably the national evening curfew—while keeping schools and most businesses open. On the other, he vowed to accelerate the country’s glacial vaccination campaign.

For two months, it looked superficially promising. From mid-January to mid-March, the number of new daily cases was high, at around 20,000, but remained on a plateau. Several opposition politicians, too, resisted talk of stricter measures. On March 1st Anne Hidalgo, Socialist mayor of Paris, called the rumour of an imminent weekend confinement in the Paris region “inhumane”. By the time Mr Macron introduced on March 18th what he called “braking” measures, or local restrictions in the worst-hit areas, however, it was too late. Hospitals, as the models had predicted, were already overwhelmed. New daily cases soared to 57,897 on April 1st.

In his address this week, Mr Macron conceded “errors”, but defended his decision not to lockdown earlier, declaring “we have won precious days of liberty”. The opposition, however, has been merciless. Far from saving time, say many, the president has wasted precious days, and lives. Marine Le Pen, nationalist leader of the National Rally, called his about-turn a “Waterloo vaccinal”. Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, said that Mr Macron had taken a gamble “and the French have lost”. On April 1st France recorded a cumulative total of about 96,000 deaths from covid-19.

The broader question, 12 months ahead of the next presidential election, is how far all this will have enfeebled Mr Macron politically. Even before the president announced a new lockdown, a poll recorded a monthly slide of two points in his popularity rating, to 39% in March. There has been much confusion over the merits, or otherwise, of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which Mr Macron once bizarrely called “quasi-inefficace” for the over 65s, before changing his mind. There have been repeated delays to the delivery of that vaccine, a spat over exports of it from the European Union, and a messy vaccination roll-out within France. A recent poll suggested that, were the second round of the presidential election to be a re-run of 2017, Ms Le Pen would score 48% to Mr Macron’s 52%—a far closer outcome than the result four years ago. It is a measure of the current mood that Ms Le Pen is challenging Mr Macron on, of all things, competence.

Whether this is enough to damage Mr Macron fatally, however, will depend on how things look not only during April, but by the summer. French intensive-care units are under extreme pressure. But the country has not yet witnessed the desperate scenes of triage seen in Italy at the start of the pandemic. Indeed, France has recorded fewer excess deaths per head of population than Britain, America, Spain or Italy, although more than Germany.

The broader picture will count, too. Throughout this school year, many parents have been able to work from home while their children have been in the classroom. A generous furlough scheme and support for small businesses have kept people in jobs and firms afloat. Vaccine-delivery bottlenecks are expected to clear this month, and the roll-out to improve. Despite the grumbling, seven out of ten French people say they approve of the new lockdown.

In short, Mr Macron is in trouble, for sure. He has just lost his gamble. This month promises to be difficult, and criticism of him will be fierce. But the unpublished novelist that he is will know that it is the ending that counts. And it may, just, not be too late to shape that.

William Murphy

William Murphy

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