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People walking in the street near the Sacre Coeur church in northern Paris (Photo: Lisa Louis)
France could be facing new strict restrictions as coronavirus infections resurgeImage: Lisa Louis/DW

France faces tough COVID choice

March 31, 2021

France's Emmanuel Macron aims to avoid a third strict and countrywide lockdown. But with new COVID-19 infections skyrocketing, he might have no other choice.


Just like in many other parts of the world, people in France have grown tired of following restrictions to slow down the spread of COVID-19.

Celine — who prefers not to reveal her last name — has been taking liberties with the rules for months.

She often comes home from get-togethers at her friends' place with her 2-year-old daughter at around 8:30 p.m., despite a countrywide curfew that kicks in at 7 p.m.

Outside, she sometimes takes off her mask — at least when no-one's around — although wearing face masks is compulsory in the streets of Paris.

And on a recent weekend, she went to see her mother, who lives 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in the department of Seine-et-Marne, east of Paris. She made the trip even though people in the capital and 18 other departments, where stricter restrictions have been imposed over the past two weeks, are only allowed out in a 10-kilometer radius around their homes.

'Absurd' coronavirus restrictions

"Of course, I'm afraid of COVID-19 — before going to see my mother, I got tested twice, and she got vaccinated," Celine told DW. "But I don't understand why I should keep sticking to these absurd rules. Why should we have to be home by 7 p.m. and not 8:30 p.m. and why on earth do I have to stay within a certain distance of my home?"

Celine feels that the people are paying the price for the country's leaders' "incompetence."

"The government is incapable of managing this crisis — first, we had no face masks; then, they kept changing the message and the rules; and now, the vaccination campaign is advancing at snail's pace — it's unbelievable," she fumed.

People on the steps of the church Sacre Coeur in Pais (Photo: Lisa Louis)
France is allowing church services at Easter if hygiene rules are respectedImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Unpopular COVID rules

Many of her compatriots would agree. Only 56% of those living in the departments with stricter rules approve of the restrictions, according to a survey carried out by polling institute Sodoxa on behalf of radio station France Info, daily newspaper Le Figaro and Paris-based company Backbone Consulting. That figure stood at 96% amongst the French during the country's first nationwide lockdown in spring last year.

In keeping with this growing trend, only one-half of the inhabitants of the zones under increased restrictions say they will abide by the new rules.

Even though it's only a "lockdown lite." As opposed to previous lockdowns, the inhabitants' daily walks are no longer limited to one hour, they don't need to fill out a form to go out — unless it's during the curfew — and the 10-kilometer rule has replaced a far more restrictive 1-kilometer rule.

A political decision?

President Emmanuel Macron would prefer to keep it like that and rather not impose a stricter nationwide lockdown, despite an incidence of currently 370 new weekly infections per 100,000 inhabitants, a figure that's far higher than in most other European countries.

As for Macron, it's all about politics, opines Bruno Cautres from the Paris-based Centre for Political Research at Science Po.

"Back in late January, the president decided against a third lockdown — contrary to the advice of many experts. He wanted to show that he was in control of the situation, and not the virus," Cautres said to DW.

The researcher explained that Macron was acting like a typical French president, who reigns over a vertical, very centralized system and aspires to appear all-powerful.

"But it's also down to Macron's character. Since his election in 2017, he has come across as rather lofty and wants to show that he's efficient as a president," Cautres said, adding that Macron was trying to sharpen his profile for the next general election in 2022.

People sitting on a lawn in Paris (Photo: Lisa Louis)
People in Paris are allowed to go up to 10 kilometers from their homes under a 'lockdown lite'Image: Lisa Louis/DW

Far right benefiting

But that strategy seems to be backfiring.

"Only 16% of the French said in our latest survey for the polling institute BVA that they felt the president knows what he's doing, compared to 42% last October," Cautres said.

What's more, the government's course of action seems to be playing into the far right's hands, says Stephane Wahnich, head of the Paris-based polling agency SCP communication.

Stephane Wahnich
Stephane Wahnich believes the far right is profiting from pandemic frustrationImage: SW, Tel Aviv im März 2021

"The far-right Rassemblement National now has a stable voter base. Certain polls predict its leader Marine Le Pen would catch 48% of the vote in a runoff against Macron," Wahnich told DW.

"But what her party has needed is a kind of chaos where it could step in and bring some authoritarian order," he added. "The epidemic and the government's bad management are providing Le Pen with that opportunity."

Wahnich thinks that part of the reason why France is now again struggling with a new COVID-19 wave is down to economics.

"Macron put billions of euros on the table to mitigate the economic damage of the crisis, as, after months of protests for more economic justice by the so-called yellow vests, he was afraid of a social revolution," he explained.

"But he hardly invested into gearing up the health sector for the next waves and the vaccination campaign," the analyst added.

Doctors could have to select patients 

The first ones to feel that are, of course, doctors. Many of them have for months been pushing for stricter measures to stem the wave — with several op-eds published over the past few days.

One, in the weekly Journal du Dimanche, was signed by 41 intensive care doctors in the Paris region. The article warned that hospitals would have to start selecting intensive care patients in the coming two weeks.

Antoine Vieillard-Baron, head of a group of intensive care doctors in the Paris region, was one of the signatories.

"We so far had to cancel 40% of non-COVID operations and will have to take care of 3,500 intensive care patients by mid-April, according to estimates based on the number of people already contaminated," he told DW.

"That's 800 more than during the peak of the first wave in spring 2020," Vieillard-Baron added.

Intensive care units in the region are currently stretched to more than 130% of their normal capacity, with roughly 1,500 patients.

The doctor is therefore pleading for the government to take stricter measures — and fast: "Otherwise, the numbers will go up even further than predicted!"

Vieillard-Baron added that the vaccination campaign was not swift enough to stop the rise — about 7.8 million people, i.e., 11% of the French population, have so far received their first jab.

People on a Paris street
Life seems much as normal on this Paris street — except for the occasional face maskImage: Lisa Louis/DW

New measures possible

Macron now seems indeed to be pondering new measures — he's expected to speak on television this Wednesday evening.

Another strict lockdown, though, is unlikely to win back Celine's support.

"I will not again stay at home on 40 square meters with my husband and my daughter — that would just be unbearable!" she said. "If those are the rules, I will come up with ways to get around them."


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