France's Emmanuel Macron finally bows to Covid-19's third wave

After priding himself on keeping the country somewhat open, the French president has imposed a new national lockdown. 

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President Emmanuel Macron has announced a third national lockdown in France, during which schools and non-essential businesses will once again close, for at least a month. Around a third of the French population, including residents of Paris, had already been living under these rules since mid-March, and they will now be extended to the entirety of mainland France.

The decision comes as a rising third wave of Covid-19 infections threatens to overwhelm the health system. Before Macron’s announcement on 31 March, the number of patients in critical care had surpassed levels during the second wave in the autumn. Doctors had been issuing increasingly grim warnings about soon having to choose which patients to care for if the rise in infections was not stemmed.

The increase in cases has been largely driven by the more contagious B1.1.7 variant of coronavirus first detected in the UK, which is now believed to account for more than 75 per cent of cases, according to health officials.

Macron had attempted to avoid a full lockdown so far this year (even though, in truth, with restaurants and cultural venues closed and a curfew in place, much of France looked a lot like other European countries in lockdown). During the lockdown announcement, Macron voiced pride in having dodged such an outcome for two months – despite now being forced to impose further restrictions in the face of the rampant spread of Covid-19. 

The French president has been criticised for refusing to fully lock down in January, against the advice of France’s scientific council (an advisory body that counsels the Élysée on how to combat the pandemic), at a time when it seemed likely that the British variant would spread across the Channel. Even as late as 1 March, Macron was pleading with his people to “hold out for a few more weeks – four to six weeks” before measures could be relaxed. However, without a rapid ramping up of vaccinations – which has so far not been forthcoming – it seemed likely that the only way to halt rising infections would remain a lockdown. 

[See also: Why is France getting Covid-19 vaccination so wrong]

Having taken the decision to tighten measures only when the numbers of infections and hospitalisations appeared so catastrophic that there was no other option, Macron leaves himself open to the criticism that his personal hubris overrode scientific advice, risking the lives of French citizens in the process. An editorial in Le Monde titled “Emmanuel Macron’s solitude” summed up the president’s predicament: “Did he not, at the beginning of the year, believe himself stronger than everyone else? Did he not think that his sole political will would prevail over the epidemiologists’ dire graphs?”

In some neighbouring countries, slow and sometimes flawed decision-making has been in part due to tension between different centres of power. Germany’s rapidly dropped announcement of a hard lockdown over Easter came about partly because of tension between the federal government led by Angela Merkel and the heads of the 16 states. By contrast, France’s centralisation of power means Macron appears to be the sole figure responsible for every decision, as Le Monde put it.

As countries in continental Europe face third or fourth waves of infections and restrictions, the UK, having vaccinated more than half of adults, is gradually easing its lockdown as deaths and infections drop to their lowest level for six months. The contrast between the two sides of the Channel underscores how the slow vaccination rate of EU member states may prolong their lockdowns for months, in addition to costing thousands of lives. 

[See also: How Covid-19 turned Paris into a city of fear]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

He co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.

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