‘Life after 11 May will not be exactly the same as before the lockdown.’ (Prime Minister Edouard Philippe)

Overwhelming understatement

The Prime Minister continued: ‘Not at once and probably not for a long time … It will not be a return to a normal life.’

So, six days after President Macron announced his decision that 11 May should be the start of the beginning of the end of the first phase of lockdown, Prime Minister Philippe gave us a long lecture on how this might be executed: the modern way for 11.5 million (not Macron’s 35 million, but still impressive) to spend a Sunday evening.

Philippe used a lot of heavy understatement. But he also brought some hope: the data are ‘encouraging’, the situation is ‘progressively improving, slowly but surely’,

Overall, though, Philippe gave us nearly two and a half hours of lecture hinting at how different post-11 May France will be from France BC (Before Coronavirus). Like all good home-schoolers, his graphic slides are available on Twitter (see Apr 19).

Any post-lockdown period is contingent on ‘massive testing’ and ‘isolating those who have coronavirus’. Prime Minister Philippe promised he would ‘over the coming days’ present ‘a detailed plan … currently being worked on’. The uncertainty of where we might be come 11 May was reinforced by constant use of the conditional tense, plus Philippe’s promise to be back with A Post-11 May Plan ‘by end-April’.

By way of background, remember that France’s current political system, the Fifth Republic, has two great traditions: 1. The President decides policy and the Prime Minister delivers 2. The Prime Minister is always expendable.

Whenever the President is under too much pressure, or should the President need a change of political direction, it’s out with the old and in with the new. The Prime Minister is the Presidential shield. The shield’s too battered? Change it.

French schoolchildren have learnt for decades that the French Prime Minister is no more than a ‘fusible‘ (fuse). When it blows, it’s changed. [A contemporary version of this function comes from a ‘regular visitor to the Prime Ministerial residence’ quoted in centre-left Le Monde today: ‘The Prime Minister is the President’s airbag, a prestigious accessory. You might want to keep him, regardless of his merits.’]

Currently, it’s being rumoured everywhere that Edouard Philippe has understood that the immortal cry ‘Taxi for the Prime Minister’ could well be articulated soon.

Other rumours hint that Philippe himself may have continuing ambitions for greater things – and that’s definitely not just becoming Mayor of Le Havre again. Yet Philippe battles on. He refuses to allow others to speculate about his future plans: he’s twice turned down the accolade of a front page splash in celebrity mag Paris Match.

Known unknowns

By way of a teaser of what 12 May (and thereafter) may look like in France, the Prime Minister delivered some solid(ish) information amid his endless lecture:

  • as from 11 May wearing a ‘mass market’ mask on public transport ‘could’ be obligatory – transport operators are demanding a large enough fine to ‘dissuade’ people from ignoring the rules
  • France would ‘soon’ produce 17 million masks per week, up from France’s current 8 million … there was probably some grumbling at this news since fully 76% believe Government lied about masks, only saying masks weren’t necessary because there weren’t even enough for health workers. With perfect timing the National Academy of Medicine has come out in favour of masks being worn at all times outside home … and the sooner the better says the Academy. Waiting for 11 May before requiring masks be worn will ‘infect thousands more, hospitalise hundreds more and kill dozens more’ (the Academy’s excellent polemic is entitled, what else, Aux masques citoyens!)
  • as from 11 May those all-important coronavirus tests would have increased from the current 150,000 per week to ‘achieving’ a distinctly unambitious 500,000 per week [Germany got to that target in March] with the objective that those with symptoms or who’ve been in contact with someone ill will either strictly self-isolate with their family, or self-incarcerate in a ‘coronavirus’ hotel [150K weekly* tests is a pitifully abysmal level of delivery which just maintains France a short Gallic nose ahead of the even-more-lamentable failure of the currently-even-less-successful British Government. The latter has pivoted to a preferred measure claiming a ‘capacity’ to perform double the tests actually achieved, and blaming lack of demand for low test levels.] [*The word ‘daily’ was replaced by ‘weekly’ (28 April)]
  • Parliament would debate mobile phone-tracking technology [which many throughout Europe will resist adopting on privacy grounds and many others – who may well be in the target community of high-risk individuals – will be unable to adopt because their phones are too old or too unsophisticated]
  • as from 11 May, schools could re-open in certain areas of France, with maybe half a class being school-taught each week while the other half is home-taught [since confirmed by the Education Minister, without in any way easing the concerns of the teaching unions]
  • as from 11 May shops would progressively re-open … but this would not apply to cafés, restaurants and hotels said the PM; however, it is now said they will begin re-opening from 15 June onwards,
  • as many people as possible will still be required to work from home.

Slow progress

France has now been locked down more than six weeks.

We learnt yesterday that the total number of patients in intensive care, as well as those entering hospital, fell again. Fourteen consecutive days of small, painfully small, overall net reductions in the number of patients in intensive care. But that continuing positive message sat ill alongside the grim news that more than 21,000 people had died from coronavirus, 40% of them in care/nursing homes. Those 21,000 deaths far exceed the worst flu outbreak France ever suffered, as well as the 19,000 people who died in the 2003 heatwave.

The Institut Pasteur study (in English), shows that the number of people in France contaminated by each infected person has dropped from 3.3 (the rate when lockdown began on 17 March) to 0.6 now.

However, forecasting for 11 May, Institut Pasteur believes only 5.7% of France will by then have been infected (and so possibly gaining some immunity). Yet major regional variations will apply: Greater Paris may be 12% ‘infected’, while Brittany will be down at 2%. So the Institute cautions: ‘Population immunity appears insufficient to avoid a second wave if all control measures are released at the end of the lockdown.’

What do you think of it so far?

Confidence in the way that Government is handling the crisis continues at very low levels. A month ago, pollster YouGov found 41% believed the Government was getting it wrong. That number last week? 56% dissatisfied.

Another pollster, Ipsos, found remarkably similar levels of lack of satisfaction. In their 21 April poll:

  • 58% are ‘not satisfied’ with the way Government is ‘managing’ the crisis (up 12 points in a month), with high levels of dissatisfaction among groups already opposed to President Macron’s policies (blue-collar workers 66% dissatisfied; unemployed 64%; hard left 75%; ultra-right 79%)
  • 39% have ‘confidence’ in President Macron (only 7% have ‘complete confidence’)
  • 45% say they feel angry when thinking about the pandemic in France
  • 25% are satisfied by what President Macron has done (41% are not satisfied and, seemingly, 34% don’t know their arse from their elbow)
  • people want even tougher health measures imposed – 75% want everyone to wear a mask when not at home, 77% support the ban on non-essential journeys, 81% support systematic testing.

Respecting the lockdown

The Prime Minister reported that France still largely respects the Lockdown Rules. More than 14 million have been given the once over by the police (I wait impatiently for my minute in the police flashlight) with 830,000 found wanting (ie doubling the wrongdoer total in just 10 days). That’s 6% miscreancy. But police trade union, Alternative Police (linked to the centrist (and largest) union, CFDT) says their phone lines buzz with too many people denouncing neighbours. The union claims that, in large towns especially, 70% of calls received are from people snitching.

The Sun has no equal: can there be a more repulsive newspaper?

Two days ago much of The Sun‘s front page was covered by a picture of a foaming pint of beer with the splash headline: ‘PUBS SHUT TILL XMAS’.

A small cartoon of a coronavirus protein near the bottom of the page read: ‘596 DEAD SEE PAGE 4’.

See it – it’s hard to believe.

Something completely different

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is always worth reading. For those not suffering enough nightmares, this alarming piece in The New York Times warns of democracy’s fragility and the danger that ‘Authoritarian rule may be just around the corner’ with ‘America [doing] a full Hungary’.

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