isIt’s not quite a lockdown, but the new measures announced by President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday come close enough. Starting this Saturday, Paris and eight other metropolises, which are home to some 20 million people, will see curfews imposed on all non-essential activities between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. for at least four weeks.
With France now well into its second wave of Covid-19 – last week saw 120,000 new cases and a steady increase in hospitalizations – new restrictions had become inevitable. Yet, as the rain of criticism from all political circles has made clear, that hasn’t made the new measures any less squeaky.
Much of the whining stems from a broader sense of frustration shared by the public: while the French authorities may have been more successful than their counterparts in the US or UK – less procrastination at first and less amateurish overall – the government has not fully risen to the challenge. Just look at neighboring Germany, which has both far fewer deaths and a fraction of the number of cases today.
To be fair, French authorities have tackled some of the most glaring shortcomings of the spring in addition to providing vital economic aid. There is no longer a shortage of masks and in towns where masks are compulsory, people largely follow the rules. While still insufficient, testing is also on the rise. In the meantime, the pillar of the government support system for workers – a large expansion of short-time working benefits – has been extended at least until the end of the year. (In France, employees subject to this scheme receive 84% of their net salary, which is more generous than the last employment assistance scheme in the United Kingdom.)
But the French also tend to keep the state at a high level. If they make personal sacrifices, they rightly expect something in return. And the polls show they were disappointed with what was offered to them.
The French were already among the most critical in Europe of their government’s response. According to a May opinion poll, strong majorities of Germans and Britons (and even 50% of Italians) thought their government was handling the crisis well, while two-thirds of French people felt the exact opposite. This lack of confidence persists. A poll last month found that 62% of French people still do not trust Macron and his government to successfully fight the pandemic.
Much of the mistrust took root in the early days of the crisis. Much like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, government officials have repeatedly told the public that wearing masks is unnecessary. We now know that there was a shortage of masks at the time and the government was desperately trying to replenish its stock behind closed doors.
And yet, to date, senior officials have failed to provide credible explanations as to why these initial recommendations have been shown to be so blatantly and fatally wrong. In a dazzling column criticizing the state for keeping citizens in the dark, journalist Edwy Plenel quotes pages from historian Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat., the classic 1940 analysis of France’s defeat against Nazi Germany: “Our people deserve to trust, to be taken in the trust of their leaders.”
More recent critiques have focused on the state management of the start of the school year, the collective return to school and work after the summer vacation. According to the latest weekly government data, universities and schools now represent 35% of the Covid clusters under investigation, more than any other source. Workplaces are the second largest source, generating about a fifth of current outbreaks.
Surprisingly, the government continues to push people to go to work. While the state officially encourages “telecommuting,” it has left the final say on the matter to individual employers, who in large numbers have apparently decided it is not worth the trouble. This insistence on a physical presence in the workplace is proving particularly inflammatory under the new restrictions: according to the logic of the government, meeting friends on a café terrace at night is too risky, and yet packing in a closed warehouse or office. is safe, as long as the right precautions are followed. As a member of the leftist party La France Insoumise say it ironically: “Macron locks the hours of freedom available to the French. Does the virus go away in the morning? Another conservative deputy and second in command of the right-wing Les Républicains party as well criticized “the absurdity” policies calling for “a curfew at night, but the metro during the day”.
In the meantime, contact tracing systems have proven to be largely inadequate, with the president himself acknowledging the failure of the government app “StopCovid” and promising to unveil a new and improved version next week. (The current iteration has only been downloaded 2.6 million times, far fewer than its counterparts in the UK or Germany, which last month had 12 million and 18 million downloads, respectively.) earlier this week, French Prime Minister Jean Castex revealed that he didn’t even have the app on his phone himself, while repeatedly and falsely calling it “TéléCovid”. A bemused online commentator joked that Castex must have searched for it on his Minitel, the infamous forerunner of the French-designed internet that never really took root abroad.
The amplification of each of these missteps, stumbles and inadequacies is the government’s highly verticalized process for policy approval and communication. Of course, top-down decision-making is a feature of the French state and, in particular, of the turbo presidency of the Fifth Republic designed by Charles de Gaulle. But Macron hasn’t done much to break with those traditions – on the contrary, he bathed in the aura of his authority, unveiling each of the key changes in Covid policy in a series of highly choreographed speeches and nationally televised in prime time.
The French can be ruthless to their politicians, and unsurprisingly, Macron has personally caught fire for his handling of the crisis. That’s one risk with his approach to work: Shining the spotlight on executive action can magnify success, but it can also be an easy target when things go wrong.
• Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Paris