As the sun set, the president discussed with his top ministers how to respond to the rapid rise in infections, hospitalizations and intensive care admissions.
Worried about the impact on the economy and education, Emmanuel Macron hesitated to embrace a full lockdown.
Its Prime Minister, Jean Castex, has been more open to the idea and so, it seems, a growing number of French people, with polls suggesting a majority in favor of a strict lockdown, similar to what France has known a year ago.
In the end, Macron didn’t go that far, but he did extend restrictions to the whole country. Everyone in France now has to live with a curfew, the closure of non-essential stores and a call to work from home.
Schools will be closed for three or four weeks, even though they would have been closed for vacation for part of that time, anyway.
The question is whether Macron has gone too far or not enough. He said he left it as late as possible to introduce these new rules, and praised himself for moving France away from the kind of recent lockdown seen in Italy or Germany.
But he said it was not an option to do nothing, and pointed out that the third wave had a greater impact on young people – 44% of people in intensive care units in France are under 65. .
Macron’s bet is that these domestic restrictions will limit the third wave enough over the next month to allow easing in late April. But France faces four major problems.
First, the so-called ‘British variant’ is now the main driver of new cases. Macron called it “an epidemic within an epidemic”.
Second – it’s clear to anyone visiting the country, and especially a large population center like Paris, that the fear of breaking the rules has dissipated.
I saw groups of people, their masks wrapped around their necks, standing next to each other in large groups in the shopping streets. Where once curfew meant empty streets, the roads in the center of the capital are now busy with people driving.
Third, the intensive care units are now almost all full. Additional aid, including military and medical students, is being recruited to help build capacity. But we are already hearing stories of doctors having to decide which of their critically ill patients is most deserving of treatment.
And fourth – vaccines. France, like most of Europe, had a slow and stammering start to its vaccine rollout, hampered by a lack of doses and exacerbated by the skepticism of a minority of the population and the reckless choice of the president to raise doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine.
We visited the Stade de France, the national sports stadium, where a vaccination center is being built. You could imagine it would be huge, with temporary buildings on the grounds and executive lodges converted into treatment rooms.
Instead, most facilities are housed in a converted conference room, which won’t be open for a week. Then it will be able to deliver 10,000 vaccinations per week – good, but not exactly spectacular.
Basically, however, the problem is that, at the moment, France does not have the doses of the vaccine to meet the demand.
And sorting that will involve a combination of patience, waiting for new vaccines and new supplies, and the political will to try and get more supplies out of AstraZeneca.
Outside of Paris, we visit Crepy-en-Valois. This small town has the dubious distinction of being the place where France lost its first victim to COVID.
When I came here to film, not long after, it was a ghost town – closed and eerily quiet.
Now he feels alive again. A small vaccination center has been set up and a sign at the reception tells me that nearly 5,000 people have received the vaccine here.
I walk with Luc Chapoton, the spokesperson for the municipal council.
If he had a choice, he would have preferred a strict lockdown “because that’s what people respect, and when we have it, the epidemic goes down.”
He shows me the fridge where the vaccines are kept, which empties almost as soon as it fills up. They pride themselves on their ability to make the most of any supplies sent – not a single dose was wasted – but Luke says it’s always a battle to send more doses.
“We have to fight,” he told me. We have to fight against others for vaccinations, to prove that we have patients who are waiting for vaccines and who need them. Yes, it’s a fight. It is a negotiation, a permanent negotiation. ”
As France enters its final period of restriction, it is an uncertain country. The third wave is underway, while the vaccine rollout is meandering. The mixture of these two elements will define the shape of the weeks to come.