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It’s not quite a lockdown, but the new measures announced by President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday come pretty close. Starting this Saturday, Paris and eight other metropolitan areas, home to some 20 million people, will see curfews imposed on all non-essential activity between 9pm and 6am for at least four weeks.
With France now well into its second wave of Covid-19 – the last week has seen 120,000 new cases alongside a steady uptick in hospitalisations – fresh restrictions had come to be seen as inevitable. Still, as the shower of criticism from across the political spectrum has made clear, that hasn’t made the new measures any less grating.
Much of the groaning stems from a broader sense of frustration shared by the public: while French authorities may have fared better than their counterparts in the US or UK – less dithering in the early stages and less amateurism overall – there is nevertheless a sense that the government hasn’t fully met the challenge. One need only look to neighbouring Germany, which counts both far fewer deaths and a fraction of the caseload today.
To be fair, French authorities have tackled some of the most glaring deficiencies from the spring in addition to extending some vital economic aid. There is no longer a shortage of masks, and in the cities where wearing one is required, people largely follow the rules. While still insufficient, testing is also on the rise. Meanwhile, the pillar of the government’s support system for workers – a broad expansion of partial unemployment benefits – has been extended until at least the end of the year. (In France, employees put on this scheme are paid 84% of their net salary, more generous than the latest job support scheme in the UK.)
But French people also tend to hold the state to a high standard. If they’re making personal sacrifices, they rightfully expect something in return. And polls show they’ve been disappointed with what they’ve been offered.
The French were already among the most critical in Europe of their government’s response. According to one opinion study in May, strong majorities of Germans and Britons (and even 50% of Italians) believed their government was handling the crisis well, while two-thirds of French people felt just the opposite. That lack of confidence persists. A poll last month found that 62% in France still didn’t have faith in Macron and his government to successfully fight the pandemic.
Much of the mistrust took root in the early days of the crisis. Just as their counterparts did elsewhere in Europe, government officials repeatedly told the public that wearing masks was unnecessary. We now know there was a shortage of masks at the time and that the government was desperately scrambling to replenish its stock behind closed doors.
And yet, to this day, high-ranking officials haven’t offered credible explanations for why those initial recommendations turned out to be so patently and fatally false. In one blistering column lambasting the state for keeping citizens in the dark, journalist Edwy Plenel quotes from the pages of historian Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, the classic 1940 analysis of France’s defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany: “Our people deserve to be trusted, to be taken into the confidence of their leaders”.
More recent criticism has focused on the state’s management of la rentrée, the collective return to school and work after summer vacation. According to the government’s latest weekly data, universities and schools now make up a staggering 35% of Covid clusters under investigation, more than any other source. The second largest source are workplaces, generating about a fifth of current outbreaks.
Bafflingly, the government continues to urge people to go to work. While the state officially encourages “telecommuting”, it has left the final say on the matter to individual employers who, in large numbers, have apparently decided it’s not worth the hassle. That insistence on a physical on-the-job presence is proving especially inflammatory under the new restrictions: according to the government’s logic, meeting friends on a cafe terrace at night is too risky, and yet packing into an enclosed warehouse or office is safe, so long as one follows the right precautions. As an MP from the left wing La France Insoumise party wryly put it: “Macron is locking down the hours of freedom that French people have. Does the virus disappear in the morning?” Another conservative MP and second-in-command of the right wing Les Républicains party also slammed the “absurdity” of policies that call for “curfew at night, but metro in the day”.
In the meantime, contact tracing systems have proven largely inadequate, with the president himself acknowledging the failure of the government’s “StopCovid” application and vowing to unveil a new-and-improved version next week. (The current iteration has been downloaded just 2.6m times, far less than its counterparts in the UK or Germany, which, last month, counted 12m and 18m downloads respectively.) Earlier this week, the French prime minister, Jean Castex, revealed he didn’t even have the app on his phone himself, all the while repeatedly and incorrectly referring to it as “TéléCovid”. One bemused commenter online quipped that Castex must have been looking for it on his Minitel, the infamous French-designed precursor to the internet that never quite took hold abroad.
Amplifying each of these missteps, trip-ups and inadequacies is the government’s highly verticalised process for approving and communicating policies. Of course, top-down decision-making is a feature of the French state and, in particular, the turbocharged Fifth Republic presidency designed by Charles de Gaulle. But Macron has done little to break with those traditions – to the contrary, he has basked in the aura of his authority, unveiling each of the key changes in Covid policy in a string of highly choreographed, nationally televised primetime speeches.
The French can be unforgiving of their politicians, and unsurprisingly, Macron has been personally taking the heat for his management of the crisis. This is one of the risks of his approach to the job: shining a spotlight on executive action can magnify success, but it can also make for an easy target when things go wrong.
• Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist
Source: The Guardian
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