France’s Macron tests positive, and now Europe is scrambling to put the lid on a potential COVID cluster

December 17, 2020, 1:57 PM UTC

The news Thursday morning that French President Emmanuel Macron had tested positive for the coronavirus landed like a pre-Christmas bombshell not only in his own country—but also across the 27-country European Union, whose leaders have been shuttling in and out of in-person meetings for weeks, grappling with a looming economic crisis, Britain’s imminent Brexit from the EU, and of course, the pandemic’s second wave.

Now the question is: Could Europe’s leaders emerge as a COVID-19 cluster?

That worrying possibility was clearly on politicians’ minds after Macron’s infection was announced. Shortly after Macron tested positive, European Council President Charles Michel began self-isolating, as did Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, both of whom met Macron in Paris on Monday—in Sanchez’s case, at a lunch with the French leader. The Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who had lunch with Macron on Wednesday, also went into isolation, as did the Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

Macron took the coronavirus test on Thursday morning after experiencing “the first symptoms” on Wednesday evening, according to the Elysée Palace. The statement did not say when the French leader had most recently tested negative, leaving unclear when he was infected and how long he might have been infectious. After the result came back positive, Macron immediately began a seven-day quarantine period inside the ornate presidential residence, along with his wife, Brigitte Macron. French Prime Minister Jean Castex and the National Assembly President Richard Ferrand also immediately self-isolated. Castex tested negative on Thursday.

But that leaves many politicians who could have been exposed to the virus. French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said contact-tracing had already begun, involving everyone Macron might inadvertently have infected—or perhaps have been infected by. “I must insist that the fact is the virus is circulating in France,” Attal said, reminding people to observe social distancing and health measures.

The list of Macron’s contacts over the past week is like a who’s who of Europe’s top political figures.

It includes 25 of the 27 EU leaders who met in Brussels for a crucial two-day summit last Thursday and Friday. The leaders have been in intensely close contact for weeks, often in person, piecing together a €1.8 trillion ($2.2 trillion) coronavirus relief package, and holed up in fraught talks over Brexit, which is due to take effect on Jan. 1—just two weeks away.

“This is a realization,” Brigitte Autran, a scientific member of the government’s COVID-19 vaccine committee, said on BFM Television on Thursday. “No one is immune to the virus, not even the head of state.” Macron’s infection came more than two months after President Trump tested positive for the virus.

Packed schedule

Of all Europe’s leaders, Macron, who turns 43 on Monday, is probably the most kinetic, with a packed agenda even during the pandemic, and a parade of world leaders who regularly arrive on his doorstep at the Elysée. A glance at his hectic schedule this past week—when he might well have been infectious—now makes for unsettling reading.

Last Monday, he met with top diplomats in Paris for the 60th anniversary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and then he had lunch with Spanish leader Sanchez. He met climate leaders on Monday. On Tuesday, he held a defense and security council meeting, and met with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as the leaders of France’s National Assembly, and had lunch with the French Prime Minister. On Wednesday, he had lunch with Portuguese leader Costa, and met with the entire French entire cabinet, which was seated shoulder-to-shoulder at the Elysée for its weekly meeting with the President. “We wore masks, except during lunch,” Damien Abad, leader in the National Assembly for the opposition Republicans party, said on BFM, of his Tuesday meeting.

Macron’s infection shows how exceedingly complicated it is to contain the second wave in Europe, a region of some 450 million people, many of whom crisscross borders easily, conducting extensive international business.

I witnessed that myself during a two-day visit to Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday. The high-speed trains linking Paris and Brussels, a 90-minute journey, were full both ways, with not a spare seat.

In the European Parliament building in the Belgian capital, there were dozens of delegates in and out of small meeting rooms both days. Many of the 704 members of the EU Parliament remain in their home countries, logging into meetings on videoconference platforms. But many are there in person, attending to a dizzying range of issues.

On Wednesday afternoon, dozens of politicians were inside the Parliament’s grand chamber to approve the EU’s biggest-ever financial relief measures. The session was presided over by the two top EU leaders, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Michel, who removed their masks when they spoke, one after the other, from the podium, hailing the €1.8 trillion deal as a momentous accomplishment, after weeks of fractious negotiations. Later, Parliament President David Sassoli addressed about 20 journalists in a small conference room, along with opposition leaders from Belarus—who had flown in from Warsaw, Vilnius, and other EU cities.

Containing COVID-19 under these conditions, in the lives of regular people, has proved extremely difficult.

Like other leaders, Macron has struggled to find a balance between allowing the French to celebrate Christmas, without turning the holiday into a superspreader event that could send COVID-19 raging again. When stores reopened on Dec. 1, after a monthlong lockdown, thousands of people rushed in to do Christmas shopping, perhaps fearing another lockdown; outside Paris’s upscale Le Bon Marché department store, lines of shoppers stretched half a street block outside. The government has previously said they would lock down over Christmas if new COVID-19 cases rose above 5,000 a day. On Wednesday, France reported 17,615 new cases in a 24-hour period. So far, the government has yet to announce tighter pandemic restrictions.

The French government has ordered ski stations to remain closed during the holidays, as have the governments of Austria and Italy. Yet Switzerland’s ski resorts remain open—and many French will simply drive, or take a train, across the border, and head there instead.