Henry SamuelThu, 1 April 2021, 12:07 pm
Emmanuel Macron came under heavy fire on Thursday over his lockdown U-turn as opposition groups boycotted a parliamentary vote on tougher restrictions and said they would not rubber-stamp the whims of “a monarch”.
Criticism over Mr Macron’s belated decision to enact tougher measures came as the French government confirmed that these would include an alcohol ban in public places after scenes of crowds enjoying beers in parks and gardens in Paris and other big cities.
Mr Macron had long rebuffed increasingly strident calls from experts to enact a hard lockdown, with hospital heads warning that they were on the verge of “triage” of patients in hotspots such as Paris.
Intensive care occupancy has surpassed 5,000 – higher than in November’s second wave.
The president finally changed tack in a prime-time televised address on Wednesday night.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-xjTPTEbvU4?enablejsapi=1&modestbranding=1&origin=http://www.telegraph.co.uk&rel=0
From Saturday night and for the next four weeks, travel restrictions will be imposed across the whole country and non-essential shops will close in line with measures already implemented in virus hotspots, he said. Schools will be shut for up to a month, with holidays extended.
He stopped short, however, of forcing people to remain at home or avoid socialising completely, and authorised travel between regions over the Easter weekend.
During a turbulent parliamentary debate, opposition groups across the board savaged Mr Macron’s go-it-alone Covid strategy.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the leftist Unbowed France, called it a “disgrace” and a “masquerade”.
“It really is April 1 today,” he told MPs. “Everything has already been decided and we are invited to come and acclaim…the presidential monarch, the best virologist in France apparently, and modesty’s best friend. We will boycott this vote.
“You are responsible before history of a health disaster the likes of which this country has never seen. You let the wave rise by aggravating everything.”
Damien Abad, of the Right-wing Republicans Party, said Mr Macron had presided over a health “berezina” – a French term for debacle that refers to a humiliating Napoleonic defeat in Russia – that was his “sole responsibility”.
He said the government and Mr Macron, he said were always “one move, one vision, one decision too late”.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-Right National Rally, said: “In a situation that is turning into health and economic chaos, the country needs to be led more than ingeniously reassured.”
Valérie Rabault, of the Socialists, compared Mr Macron’s unilateral decision to Germany’s Angela Merkel and said: “Does the president think himself more intelligent than the German chancellor, who takes the trouble to debate for seven hours with regional presidents to reach a consensus, who bothers to get all her decision voted by the Bundestag and who mourns 20,000 less deaths than us when Germany has 17 million more inhabitants?”
Despite the boycott from the opposition, the new restrictions were approved in parliament, where Mr Macron’s LREM party has a majority.
In a boost for the president, a Harris poll taken after his televised address suggested that a majority of French people, some 57 per cent, were convinced by his speech, and 71 per cent approved of his measures. In particular, they warmed to his pledge to ramp up vaccinations and push people to home-work.
The pragmatic decision to allow people to move around on Easter weekend to reach family or second homes before banning travel between regions was appreciated. “We have to be effective in terms of health, accepted on a social level and to protect economically and psychologically,” said one Elysee aide.
Christophe Castaner, the head of the Macron parliamentary camp, dismissed “crisis commentators” and said: “Their soul must be very light when it comes to saying one thing and then its exact opposite.”
Olivier Véran, the health minister, defended France’s vaccine strategy and decision not to lock down earlier.
“If France had announced a lockdown in January, France would have run every risk to declare another lockdown late March,” he said. “To be convinced of that, look no further than Italy, which is on its fourth blanket lockdown. Look no further than Germany, obliged to re-confine after three months of tough lockdown.”
On Wednesday night, Mr Macron insisted: “We have adopted a strategy since the beginning of the year that aims to contain the epidemic without shutting ourselves in.”
Not locking down in January meant “we gained precious weeks of liberty, weeks of learning for our children, we allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their head above water, without losing control of the epidemic,” the president argued.
It remains to be seen whether the new measures are enough to reverse the sharp rise in infections, which have been running at more than 40,000 a day – double their level at the beginning of the month.
More than 53,000 new cases were announced late on Wednesday, but that number covered two days after no numbers were made public on Tuesday. The country also recorded 304 new deaths, bringing its total toll to 95,667.
French media remained sceptical about Mr Macron’s insistence that normality could return to France by mid-May.
“Lockdown, the sequel… and the end?” Le Figaro headlined its front page Thursday, while Le Parisien, the capital’s daily, called Mr Macron’s strategy “slowing without shutting down” even as “the situation has never been so dangerous or complicated”.
In Le Monde, Solenne de Royer wrote that Mr Macron’s “dramatisation” of the stakes was a blatant attempt to “mask the government’s powerlessness against an out-of-control epidemic and cumulative delays since last summer over vaccination and intensive care beds”.
The paper cited an Elysée visitor who was “surprised to find the president ‘ecstatic’ and convinced of the merits of his choices, fuelled by an ‘unbelievable courtly atmosphere'”.
“If I don’t do everything all by myself, nothing gets done,” the president reportedly told the visitor.
The comments followed reports in the same paper that Mr Macron believes he has become such an expert on Covid that “he is no longer following the advice of scientists”.
Despite alarm bells ringing over hospital saturation, Mr Veran insisted that the number of new Covid cases could peak in the next seven to 10 days, while intensive care cases in hospitals might top out by the end of April.
With presidential elections due next Spring, Mr Macron’s political future may well hang on how the French think he handled the pandemic.
While his likely rival in a run-off, Marine Le Pen, has gained ground in recent polls, one published shortly before his televised address showed 36 per cent of respondents trusted the president, way above both his predecessors a year out from the vote.