‘Gaul is a whole divided into three parts’ (J Caesar). France ‘est divisé en deux’ (Prime Minister E Philippe).

Commentaries on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar.
1469 manuscript (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich)

Midnight tonight: France takes small steps away from lockdown

As France’s total COVID-19 deaths reach 26,310 (16,573 in hospital and 9,737 in care/nursing homes; up 80 since the previous day), there is a painfully slow reduction each day in the numbers hospitalised:

  • 22,614 in hospital (down 110)
  • 2,812 in intensive care (down 56; on 8 April, at its peak, 7,148 were in i/c)

All background as to why life will not change much with the post-lockdown measures.

So, from midnight tonight, I will be able to

  • leave home to exercise as much as I want: fast walk, jog, run, skip, cycle provided I stay 10m apart from others … unless I fast walk where a 5m security zone is required
  • golf (if I golfed) or tennis (if I tennised) … but no doubles tennis
  • forget all about my Self-Authorisation For Leaving Home, unless I go more than 100km from home (new >100km Authorisation Form available soon)
  • walk in forests or on river banks (but not parks or gardens because I’m in Zone Red … more later); I can even do that with 9 others … But. Remember. NO ‘static stops’ (sic). NO picnicking. And social distancing at all times [Préfectoral Warning: Failure to respect these rules … and they’re off limits again]
  • meet up to 9 friends at once
  • visit as many shops or markets as I please – provided they’re not central Paris stores or in a Paris region shopping centre (all shuttered: Zone Red again); 400,000 shops employing 875,000 people may re-open (77,000 hairdressers + 33,000 clothes shops + 15,000 florists + 3,300 bookshops said Finance Minister Le Maire desperate for people to spend spend spend)
  • take public transport – provided (i) it’s not in peak hours (special form required) and (ii) I’m masked (1.6 million masks already sent to 200 Greater Paris stations; another 2 million in 400 stations tomorrow)
  • take my nursery/primary age child to school (if I had one AND was minded to do so); Education Minister Blanquer said ‘nearly 86%’ of primary schools (a details man, him) can receive children from tomorrow, with half the teachers working; after a stand-off with recalcitrant Mayors (legally responsible for nursery/primary schools) Government took responsibility for school-opening; Blanquer’s modest ambition is that every child attends school once in May (a teacher we know will not have her ‘promised’ half a class of 30, but only 6).

However, no cafes, restaurants, bars, swimming pools, cinemas, theatres. This difficult-to-read Government infographic is intended to provide the details.

Good news’ and ‘less good news’

7 May 2017: Emmanuel Macron elected President.

7 May 2020: Prime Minister Philippe announced France’s gradual initial moves towards lockdown reduction.

Philippe divided France into two unequal parts: a Green three-quarters(ish) and a Red quarter(ish). Over 27 million people (40% of France) live in Zone Red. [Not forgetting the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte].

During May, everyone in France’s daily lives will remain broadly aligned, although middle schools, public parks and gardens will progressively open in Zone Green. But if, come June, France moves to the next post-lockdown phase, those in Zone Red will find a growing gap with Zone Green.

What the Prime Minister called ‘good news’ on 7 May was confirmation that nothing prevented the hoped-for 11 May Deconfinement beginning ‘throughout mainland France’. But there was ‘less good news’ for those in ‘certain Departments where the results are not as good as hoped for.’

’11 May’, said the PM, is ‘the first day of a new phase. Social life will resume. But life will not be the same as before. The transition from lockdown requires discipline and responsibility … Over the larger part of France we have successfully slowed the epidemic’s progress. We have created leeway in our hospitals. We are ready to test … If Green areas remain Green for three weeks, we will review a further move away from lockdown, perhaps opening high schools [lycées], cafes and restaurants.’ [Nice that the fate of three core French institutions is thus linked.]

However, ‘In Red Départements [Counties], the virus still circulates rapidly. Hospitals remain stretched. Post-lockdown therefore requires additional restrictions … [in the Greater Paris region] because of its large, dense population … the infection rate is slowly falling but remains high. It’s higher than expected. In [Greater Paris] we must be extra vigilant … access to public transport during peak hours [06:30-09:30 and 16:00-19:00] will be reserved for those with an employer’s certificate stating they must travel or a demonstrably good reason for travelling (such as health, accompanying children or a legal summons).’ [Another bizarre conjunction of Three Little Things.]

‘Prudence’ was a word much used by the Prime Minister. But, addressing Oldies directly (plus others similarly ‘at risk’) Philippe specifically warned that extra prudence was required. Oldies are subject to the same rules as everyone else. But he urged them to ‘continue voluntarily observing, to the very greatest possible extent, every single one of those extremely strict rules so prudently observed over two months.’ So, a final plea that Oldies remain home as much as possible. Fat chance.

When the football club Chairman strongly supports the Manager’s performance, can the redundancy package be far away?

President Macron’s 13 April TV address confirmed the lockdown exit strategy outline. He said he intended ‘to establish new objectives … Over the coming weeks, working with our nation’s stakeholders, I will do my best to set out clearly what will make that possible.’ Doubtless helped by appropriate briefings, the public understood the coded message. Days later pollster Ifop got the expected feedback: 71% support a Government of National Unity.

In parallel, rumours emerged of growing discontent between Macron and his PM. Weekly news magazines Le Point and l’Express reported Macron as telling journalists he disagreed with Premier Philippe’s approach to exiting lockdown.

Maybe Macron felt events were moving uncontrollably? Meeting senior Ministers (just before the PM presented his exit strategy to Parliament), Macron formally denied Tensions At The Top. ‘The entire Executive is as one during this crisis’, the President told his Ministers, ‘I utterly reject anything which, through rumour or speculation, tries dividing the Government and, especially, the Prime Minister and the President.’

The PM’s own exit strategy press conference closed with a question about Tensions At The Top. Philippe referred to three excellent years working with the President which he hoped would continue. He closed the Q&A with a crisp ‘Let me say that in the very midst of a medical crisis … spending even a couple of seconds writing or talking about this subject … in my view political journalists fail to understand that our fellow citizens really couldn’t care less about any of this.’

Localism (slowly) rules OK

The heavy hand of Paris – which controls most things throughout France – is being lightened. Power is being transferred to Mayors. In Zone Green, Mayors are invited to initiate discussions with their Préfet (local representative of The State) where they want to open beaches, water sports centres and lakes, which otherwise remain closed.

Primary schools and nurseries are each Mayor’s responsibility. Again, localism will play a major role determining how matters progress. President Macron already made clear no teacher would be required to work if they felt there wasn’t a safe workspace. The PM followed up formally warning each Préfet against over-hasty (re)action: ‘If you consider a Mayor’s decision to keep a school closed is not well-founded, you are to prioritise dialogue and persuasion rather than legal sanction.’

What do you think of it so far?

That is certainly the response of many in France.

Even for Macron-sceptics like myself, it’s bewilderingly incomprehensible. Opinion polls show unrelenting rejection of Macron (and his Government too):

  • Ifop/Fiducial (7 May): 35% have confidence in Government post-lockdown preparations, while 80% believe Government concealed information
  • YouGov (1 May): 60% believe Government is managing the pandemic badly, (the worst result since that question was first asked 8 weeks ago)
  • Harris Interactive (1 May): 43% have confidence in Macron’s performance (down 8 points in a month)
  • Ifop/Fiducial (30 April): 40% approve Macron’s performance (down 6 points since March)

There’s an excellent analysis of France’s visceral, continuing rejection of President Macron, with an explanation of France’s continuing proud Leader-Bashing, by the insightful John Lichfield in Politico. Lichfield writes of how increasingly odd it is that Trump and Johnson continue to enjoy near-stellar(ish) ratings, while Macron languishes in the lower depths, enduring near-rejection.

For a different perspective, which is currently delighting right-wing circles, read today’s Bloomberg article ‘The Humbling of Emmanuel Macron’. It recycles most of the old clichés.

Masks

One of the issues most damaging Government is the continuing debate as to the need for masks when out and about, and the lack of them due, evidently, to ‘Government incompetence’. An unscientific analysis of suburban streets over several days reveals that The People believe they’re useful. But Government continues to hesitate.

Our local Mayor is in on the masks act. Yesterday, an envelope was delivered. A letter entitled ‘Masks for All’. Plus 3 masks (1 washable, 2 ‘surgical’ meaning what?) with a slip to claim extra masks from location(s) to be identified.

Hope they’re less suffocating than the ex-curtains used thus far

Now this Mayor is a middle of the road politician. He’s one of several former centre(ish) conservatives who declare themselves ‘Macron-compatible’ rather than supporters of the Républicains party’s more swivel-eyed ideologues.

So it was odd to find Mr Mayor taking a rather bold position, writing: ‘… everyone agrees on the need to wear a mask outside one’s home.’

Not everyone, Mr Mayor. I await the WHO’s guidance on what’s best when outside.

Good (and less good) communications

Prime Minister Philippe’s presentation on de-lockdown was good.

Over an hour six Ministers (Health and Education first; prickly Interior Minister Castaner bringing up the rear) gave succinct statements about their respective proposals. Then 50 minutes questions from journalists. The Prime Minister (Health Minister Véran at his side) replied fully and cogently. No bombast, no bluster, no boosterism, no apparent exaggeration [astonishment on my part though at promises on mask and test availability], and apparent transparency.

I’ve never been much of a Philippe fan. But here was a man at ease, and in total control, despite (because of?) his threatened early demise. End-April, Philippe’s approval ratings were higher than Macron’s [46% positive for Philippe (+3); 40% positive for Macron (-10)]: that press conference won’t have damaged him.

Over the Channel things are different. David Yelland, former editor of the UK’s best-selling rag, The Sun, knows about communications. He called out the UK Government for its stupid Wednesday night newspaper briefings which proved way off the mark:

And for those who might enjoy some British Prime Ministerial wisdom and incisiveness, here’s a bit of Boris Johnson ‘answering’ a question this week from the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. An instructive text:

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