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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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.