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POLITICS

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

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.

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

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

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. 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.

  2. “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…

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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