2020 in France: Terror attacks, political shakeups and ‘war’ on coronavirus

·4-min read

French President Emmanuel Macron solemnly declared in March that France was at war as it prepared to face the Covid-19 pandemic. RFI takes a look back at 2020, a year of political and social upheaval as France faced a health crisis and a fresh spike in Islamist attacks.

Within a week of the World Health Organization declaring Covid-19 a pandemic, Macron said in a televised address that France was “at war” against the new coronavirus, putting the country under lockdown from 17 March.

Extended twice, the lockdown was lifted on 11 May. By that point, France’s official death toll linked to the coronavirus was over 26,000.

A second wave of infection in autumn saw restrictions reimposed. Another nationwide lockdown came into effect on 30 October and was replaced by an 8pm-6am curfew on 15 December.

At the end of 2020, France counted more than 60,000 deaths of patients affected by the coronavirus.

French lifestyle struck to the core

Health restrictions brought wide-reaching changes to French social life, with shops, bars, restaurants, theatres, museums, schools, universities and places of worship closing their doors for long periods.

Massive unemployment, especially in the tourism and hospitality sectors, along with a drastic rise in poverty were direct economic consequences.

The French adapted to new social phenomena such as working from home and online socialising. New labour laws made online work from home compulsory in many cases.

Generalised testing and the first phase of the national vaccination scheme in December augured a better handling of the pandemic, though many vaccine sceptics remained wary.

Sextapes, green waves and a government reshuffle

Municipal elections in France this year were wracked with controversy.

In February, Benjamin Griveaux, mayoral candidate for President Macron’s LREM party, dropped out of the race following a smear campaign where sexually explicit videos of him were leaked online.

Agnès Buzyn replaced Griveaux, but not without criticism, as she left her position as health minister in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Buzyn was replaced by Olivier Véran.

The municipal elections, whose logistics and timing were criticised by many, saw record-level abstention.

In Paris, Anne Hidalgo was re-elected mayor of Paris against her two main rivals.

The overall results saw a sharp rise of the Green Party in urban areas and the right-wing Les Républicains in rural districts.

A government reshuffle ensued, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe replaced by Jean Castex, commonly known as France’s “Mr Confinement” for his frontline role coordinating the first coronavirus lockdown.

Eric Dupont-Moretti was appointed Justice Minister, a decision criticised by many French magistrates.

Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin took over France’s Interior Ministry, a nomination marred with indignation from women’s groups due to rape charges filed against the minister.

Later in the year, Darmanin was accused of not doing enough to reprimand police brutality in France, especially after incidents during the violent clearance of a migrant camp, and also an isolated incident where a black music producer was beaten up by a police patrol.

Charlie Hebdo and the tragic casualties of satire

France also faced several Islamist terrorist attacks and threats as several young men, often radicalised on social media, perpetrated various attacks on civilians and police officers across the country.

The threat grew with the start the trial for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, on which occasion the satirical newspaper republished cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

A few days after a knife attack at Charlie Hebdo’s old offices, schoolteacher Samuel Paty was ambushed and beheaded by a young Chechen refugee.

A few days later, a man from Tunisia attacked a church in Nice, killing three worshippers.

Faced with nationwide anger and indignation, Macron took a firm anti-terrorist stance.

The government shut down mosques and other Islamic organisations suspected of encouraging radical views.

This led to anti-French protests and boycott of French products in several Muslim-majority countries around the world.

2021: the year when life becomes 'normal' again?

France began its Covid-19 vaccination campaign in December, following the provisional EU approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

After senior citizens, health professionals and high-risk individuals, the vaccine is expected to be available to France's general population in spring 2021.

But with new virus strains detected in the UK, it could be a while yet before things get back to normal.