French President Emmanuel Macron has used the reconstruction of the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame Cathedral as a metaphor for the country coming together as France hits the symbolic mark of 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
Macron visited the upper levels of the Notre-Dame site with a helmet and a jumpsuit on the second anniversary of the fire that ravaged the roof of the Gothic masterpiece in 2019.
Workers spoke to the French president, who is under pressure as a locked-down France faces a third wave of the pandemic with many hospitals at the point of saturation, about their efforts to secure and stabilize the site, despite difficulties due to levels lead and Covid restrictions.
Macron told reporters at Le Parisien that the damaged cathedral, which is set to partially reopen in 2024, was “a metaphor for how many people feel and what we are going through.”
He said: “Our medical staff were extremely heroic, as the firefighters were in the blaze. These events show the ability of the French to unite… when the worst happens.
He said the pandemic had shown how certainties can be overturned but the pandemic was a “tough crisis”, causing pain and exhaustion.
On Thursday, relatives of many of those who died from Covid-19 lobbied the government for an official memorial for the dead, with some complaining that their loved ones had died “like victims of the plague” as families were unable to cry properly.
France, with a population of 67 million, will be the eighth country in the world to reach the grim mark of 100,000 official deaths, and the third in Europe after the United Kingdom and Italy. In recent days, French health authorities have reported around 300 new deaths per day linked to Covid. Experts believe the actual figure could be over 100,000 when home deaths are factored in.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said in his latest briefing on Wednesday that now is the time to honor the dead but the country is now in ‘difficult days’ as it fights another rapid increase of confirmed cases.
“There will certainly be a tribute, a national mourning for the victims of Covid-19,” Attal said. “That moment will come … Today we are putting all our strength into the battle against the epidemic.”
Macron is under mounting political pressure after declaring last March that France was at “war” with the virus and is now accused by political opponents of not locking down fast enough this spring. The regional elections scheduled for June will likely present a significant logistical challenge. A year before the French presidential election of 2022, polls show that the far right Marine Le Pen is once again in the second round against Macron.
France was placed in a third partial lockout in early April, as new infections increased and hospitals struggled to find beds for patients. The total number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care in France exceeded 5,900 this week. Schools and most non-essential stores have closed and a ban is in place on most domestic travel.
A national overnight curfew has been in place since mid-December and all restaurants, bars, gymnasiums, cinemas and museums in France have been closed since October.
Macron will meet the ministers at the Elysee on Thursday evening to discuss a roadmap for a future gradual opening of restaurant terraces, cultural sites and other services. But with the current spike in cases, the suggested start date for easing restrictions to mid-May could be pushed back. Macron was accompanied to Notre-Dame by the Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, during her first official outing since her hospitalization for Covid-19.
French authorities hope 20 million people, or around 38% of the adult population, will have received at least one vaccine injection by mid-May – the current figure stands at just over 11 million people .
According to the Associated Press, France is the country that has reported the highest number of confirmed infections in Europe at more than 5.1 million.