Amid risks of a push back from a population wearied by successive restrictions, the French government is mulling tougher anti-Covid curbs – including a third lockdown – after conceding a nightly curfew was failing to suppress the spread of the virus.
When it comes to deciding on new measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron and his government are walking a tightrope. Should another nationwide lockdown – the third in less than 12 months – be quickly imposed on the French, as scientists are advocating? Or should the government wait a few more weeks, or even opt for a less strict approach, so as not to alienate part of the population?
It is a decision that has left the state’s leaders in a quandary. The French, like so much of the rest of the world, are increasingly succumbing to a generalised state of weariness after nearly a year of living under Covid-19 restrictions. But government spokesman Gabriel Attal left little room for doubt over what the government’s next move might be after the council of ministers met at the Élysée Palace on January 27 to discuss the pandemic response.
"The 6pm curfew has been relatively ineffective. We have data to show that ... at this stage, it does not sufficiently slow down the circulation of the virus," Attal said. Faced with this situation, the scenarios under consideration range "from maintaining the current framework to a very tight containment", he added.
Health Minister Olivier Véran spoke on January 28 of the need to "avoid a pandemic within the pandemic". He said that the virus is circulating more widely and is "spreading faster every week". The effectiveness of the curfew, he added, is now "waning".
At the time of the first lockdown, in March 2020, Macron did not hesitate to invoke military language when he imposed a national lockdown a few days after the closure of schools. "We are at war," he told the French who while caught off guard by the sudden shutdown, were largely willing to abide by the restrictions.
Though today’s discourse has clearly evolved, it seems the government would need to do far more to gain the confidence and consent of the French if it decides to shut down the country again.
"There is a feeling of weariness, doubt and of a need to question, all of this is legitimate. And in making a political decision, you must take into account social acceptance,” Christophe Castaner, the speaker of parliament and head of Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party, told France Inter radio on Wednesday.
'People can't take it anymore'
The issue of social acceptance first cropped up in the early 1980s when French politicians contemplated how to convince the French to be vaccinated. Support for the government’s vaccination campaign depended on acquiring sufficient buy-in or social acceptance from the population.
However, the latest opinion polls show that the French are today lagging on social acceptance. "We have to be vigilant about social acceptance as it’s a very important issue, because under the first lockdown it was 85 percent, during the second it was 65 percent, and now it is 40 percent," a government source told AFP.
When they meet with their constituents, many politicians can sense they are no longer in the same frame of mind as last spring. Frustration and fatigue have set in after almost a year in which ordinary lives have been upended.
"We sense that people are much more anxious, that they can't take it anymore, that they are tense and stressed, especially small shopkeepers who are afraid of not surviving a new lockdown similar to that of spring 2020," Caroline Janvier, an LREM MP from Loiret, told FRANCE 24. "But more than anger, I see problems related to mental health, problems of depression and isolation, especially among the elderly.”
Recent events in the Netherlands, where a protest movement and riots took place after the announcement of a Covid-19 curfew last weekend, would not have escaped Macron’s attention. The police arrested 250 people on Sunday evening and another 70 on Monday. Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the riots “the worst in 40 years”, in a country that has not seen a curfew since the Second World War.
At the same time in France, the hashtag "#JeNeMeReconfineraiPas" (#I will not go back into lockdown) appeared on Twitter, where it went viral with more than 40,000 shares. Some of the posts even invited civil disobedience.
"Several businesses refuse to close anyway. There is a step between declaration and action, but this is also the case for many citizens who have respected everything since March: where is there a place for life in all this? #JeNeMeReconfineraiPas," wrote Fabrice D on the social network.
It soon sparked a counter hashtag #JeMeConfinerai (#I will go into lockdown) with many angrily remonstrating the anti-lockdown voices.
“The #JeNeMeConfineraiPas, you are not resistance fighters. You are not more awakened spirits amid a bunch of sheep or whatever. Most of the time you are just selfish,” wrote @JonBelh
Fear of risks is much less present
Last March, fear and uncertainty over the novel coronavirus meant the French were willing to comply with strict anti-Covid rules, but attitudes have since changed.
The government is grappling with a health crisis that is certainly increasing but not exponentially enough to secure public, and even political, consensus on the best way to flatten the virus curve.
France reported 27,169 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, the biggest one-day jump since mid-November when a second lockdown was in place. Of these cases, 3,107 were in intensive care units, according to the health ministry. The tally for new daily deaths hit 350 bringing the total number of deaths caused by the pandemic in France to 74,456. The figure is lower than in the UK, which has a comparable population and which on Tuesday was the first European country to surpass the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid deaths.
The new British iteration of the virus is more transmissible and could trigger a “very significant” increase in the number of patients in the immediate future, according to doctors from the Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, the university hospital trust operating in Paris and its surroundings. In Paris, 9.4 percent of cases detected between January 11 and 21 were of this more contagious variant.
"If we are forced to put in place a new lockdown, we will have to have the right words to explain it and justify its implementation," an adviser to senior government ministers warned, in an interview with AFP.
As the government weighs up whether to risk civil disobedience by imposing another lockdown, it is unlikely Macron will announce the state’s next move before Saturday, two weeks after the curfew was extended. It will also give the French president time to defy critics who have accused him of bypassing consultations and acting alone on decisions concerning the Covid crisis. He has asked Prime Minister Jean Castex to conduct “an in-depth consultation” with officials, advisers and other stakeholders of the different Covid strategies on the table ahead of his expected announcement of changes at the end of the week.