France closes schools as virus rips through the country and vaccinations lag

March 31, 2021, 10:08 PM UTC

Just five years ago, Emmanuel Macron was a shockingly young politician, who ran his first-ever race—for French President, no less—and swept to victory, becoming one of the world’s top leaders at age 39.

Fast forward to 2021. Exactly one year before Macron faces voters again for a second five-year term, the best gauge of how the election battle might shape up in the months ahead came on Wednesday night, when the French leader went on television to announce more COVID-19 restrictions, as he scrambled to halt a surge in cases—and to put the brakes on his own sinking approval rating.

In a key reversal, Macron announced a month-long shutdown of primary, middle and high schools—something he had resisted doing for 10 months, in contrast to many U.S. states and European countries.

“I know you’re feeling fatigued, I know there is rage and people are fed up,” he said, appealing to the French to respect the rules, after days in which thousands of people have swarmed the parks and riverbanks, basking in balmy Spring weather. Macron urged people to obey the nighttime curfew that has been in place since January, and a travel limit of six miles from home. “Do it for the elderly, and for those who are most fragile, for the children, to prepare for them the country, the continent, the world to which they are entitled.” he said.

The announcement, expected for days, came after weeks in which the virulent U.K. variant of the coronavirus has ripped through France, threatening to overwhelm its hospitals. Daily cases have risen to the same level as the peak last November, and on Monday 4,974 people were admitted to ICU wards, higher even than that peak. Macron said 44% of those in ICU wards were now under 65. About 95,500 people have died of COVID-19 in France, and doctors have warned that the health-care system (heavily funded by French taxpayers) was headed for unbearable strain. “There is going to be a glaring mismatch between needs and available resources,” hospital directors wrote in France’s Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. “We have never experienced such a situation.”

And yet, despite Macron’s appeal to people’s common-sense, the new restrictions might do little to secure his political odds—at least not until the pandemic is well and truly over. That is a sign of how the coronavirus has become the crucial make-or-break factor for many leaders’ political fortunes. Evidence of that was plain in the U.S. presidential elections last November, which was fought in good part on President Trump’s pandemic failings. And in mid-March, Merkel’s Christian Democrats party lost two key regional elections, in part as punishment for Germany’s halting vaccine rollout.

In recent weeks Macron has looked equally vulnerable. He has faced a barrage of criticism from his rivals, who accuse him of dithering for months over whether or not to lock down, and of bungling the vaccine program through overbearing regulations and a hidebound loyalty to the European Union—which itself moved far too slowly in securing vaccines for its 27 countries.

The attacks have come from both ends of the political spectrum. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has dismissed Macron’s promises to accelerate the vaccine program as being “as usual, just verbal noise.”

And on Tuesday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen told foreign correspondents in Paris that “the very poor management of Emmanuel Macron of this health crisis means we will probably come out much later than the others.” Recent opinion polls suggest Le Pen is neck-and-neck with Macron in next year’s presidential race, with a chance of beating him—something that would be a political earthquake in France, and in Europe. On a Zoom call with the Anglo American Press Association, Le Pen said she thought her chances of victory were “not only possible but plausible.”

For months, Macron has tried to balance the economic and psychological pain of a lockdown, with the risk that keeping France open could lead to hundreds of needless deaths. In January, he rejected the advice of his own health minister to impose a third national lockdown. Instead, he tried to find a middle ground, imposing travel limitations and evening lockdowns, but keeping schools and most stores open. “We get to see exactly how much more complicated life is about to get because Macron decided to irresolutely drift for the past two months,” tweeted Mike Duncan, host of the “Revolutions” podcast, on Wednesday.

Macron’s approval rating dropped 3% in March alone, to 36% (down from 57% at the time of his election in May 2017), according to Kantar Public’s monthly poll, released hours before Macron’s address. About 58% of those surveyed said they did not trust Macron to solve France’s problems.

The French do not need to look far to see how poorly their country has done: In Britain, 23.7 million people have received at least one vaccine dose. That’s about four times the number in France, with the same population. About 2.7 million French are fully vaccinated—just 4% of the country’s 67 million people. Meanwhile about one-quarter or so of Americans fully inoculated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Still, even after his address, Macron faces deep dilemmas about how to act—including whether to admit he does not necessarily know which decision is right, something of a common thread among politicians right now. Merkel—Macron’s closest partner in Europe—last week admitted she had bungled a crucial decision, when she announced an Easter lockdown, and then reversed herself two days later. “This mistake is solely and alone my mistake,” she told journalists in Berlin last week.

Merkel’s mea culpa was in stark contrast to Macron two days later, when he refused to concede he had made any errors in his pandemic management, when he met reporters last week after a key speech to E.U. leaders.

The failure to admit his mistakes may have been yet another error on Macron’s part. In Kantar Public’s poll, some of those surveyed criticized Macron’s arrogance—a charge with which he has been tagged for four years. On Wednesday night, Macron went a little way to try correct that. “We could always have looked back with hindsight, as if we could have done better,” he said on television, avoiding using the word “I.” “We have learned from our mistakes.”

If there is some comfort for the French leader, it is that his approval ratings are still much higher those of his two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, at the same point, when they polled 15% and 23% respectively. Then again, neither of them served a second term as President.

France shuts schools as Macron tries to halt covid surge and his ratings slump