Macron Beat Back the Coronavirus. France Is Not Impressed.

Macron Beat Back the Coronavirus. France Is Not Impressed.

Macron Beat Back the Coronavirus. France Is Not Impressed.

Macron Beat Back the Coronavirus. France Is Not Impressed.

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron’s government has beaten back the coronavirus, prevented mass layoffs, propped up the salaries of the unemployed, staved off long food lines, and achieved a lower death rate than its neighbors, Germany excepted.

Mr. Macron ordered a strict lockdown that lasted nearly two months, and when it was over the virus was barely circulating. But while the early response could be faulted for some sluggishness and a shortage of masks, and more than 29,000 people died, France has fared better than many in the pandemic, especially when compared with the United States, Italy, Spain and especially Britain.

Just don’t tell that to the French, who resent Mr. Macron for it more than ever.

The French expect much of their leaders, and almost always find them wanting. Mr. Macron is no exception. In fact, the better the results, the less willing, it seems, the French are to applaud their president. That pattern has held virtually since Mr. Macron took office in 2017, casting a shadow over a term expiring in two years.

Mr. Macron reduced unemployment and created more jobs, but the French resented him for loosening labor protections. He evened out the country’s helter-skelter pension system, and there were months of strikes by aggrieved unions and citizens distrustful of his intentions.

Even as the French celebrated their provisional release from lockdown this week with the much-anticipated partial reopening of cafes and restaurants, the coronavirus has only reinforced the paradox of the president’s uneasy relationship with his own citizens.

“Deconfinement is going pretty well,” said Olivier Galland, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research. “But the French don’t seem satisfied. But I don’t think they can ever be satisfied.”

On Friday the head of the government’s scientific council, the immunologist Jean-François Delfraissy, declared the epidemic “under control” in France, in an interview on French radio. Still, the French, far more than their European neighbors, have judged the government’s performance in response to the health crisis harshly.

“Distrust is a structural element of French society, stable and well-established,” Mr. Galland wrote in a recent paper on “The Great Depression of the French” for Telos, a widely followed political science website.

On average, over half of Europe’s citizens, outside of France, view their government’s performance in response to the virus favorably, even in countries with far worse records. In France, 66 percent have an unfavorable view, according to a recent Figaro poll.

Mr. Macron stiffened and looked impatient when he was asked recently on French television about his unpopularity.

“Look, I don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “I’m looking ahead.’’

“For decades this country has known doubt and division,’’ Mr. Macron added. ‘‘I don’t believe in miracles. This distrustful France exists. It hasn’t changed.”

Whatever credit France’s government gets from its success in dealing with the virus has gone instead to Mr. Macron’s understated prime minister, Édouard Philippe.

“The news is pretty good,” Mr. Philippe said simply last week, after looking at the post-lockdown results. Over 60 percent found him convincing in a poll by the independent Odoxa polling firm for Le Figaro and France-Info.

In a sign of his political ascendancy, Mr. Philippe was on the cover of this week’s L’Obs, a popular weekly newsmagazine, with the headline, “The Tough Guy.”

“Can Macron do without Édouard Philippe?” the magazine asked, alighting on speculation that Mr. Macron would jettison a prime minister who has stolen the spotlight once the crisis ended.

Yet the government’s measures — a tightly enforced lockdown, mobilization of French technology like high-speed trains to save patients, and closely followed counsel from scientists — were Mr. Macron’s. That is the French way: the president decides, and the nation follows.

But that means Mr. Macron takes the blame, too, for the early shortage of masks, which the government did not initially admit to and a spokeswoman minimized. The affair riled the French media for several weeks, but has since largely dropped from view. On the streets some wear masks but many do not.

“What’s most problematic is that we’re actually being lied to,” said Marie Balaril, 27, a social-sciences instructor at a Paris university, as she recalled the government’s refusal to acknowledge that the country had faced a mask shortage.

The president has vigorously defended his record. “Let’s be honest,’’ Mr. Macron said in the recent television interview. ‘‘At the beginning of March nobody was talking about masks.”

“When I look around, nobody was ready,’’ he said. ‘‘Nobody. Nobody.’’

The per capita death rate in France is higher than the United States, with more than 100,000 deaths. But France has a population density — a key variable in the epidemic — more than three times greater. France’s hospitalization and death curves have been in sharp decline since about the second week of April.

In contrast to those on the street, many experts and others interviewed gave the government good marks.

Guillaume Chiche, a parliamentarian who recently deserted Mr. Macron’s party — another sign of the French president’s waning popularity — said the government’s actions “were very strong.’’

‘‘Now, they seem logical. But at the time they were anything but neutral,” Mr. Chiche said, pointing to the moves to prop up salaries, ban religious ceremonies, and impose the lockdown. “I think they made choices that were optimal.”

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Still, he joined 13 other members of parliament who deserted the French president’s party in May, depriving it of its majority — a symbolic blow widely interpreted in the French media as an ominous sign for Mr. Macron’s future.

Mr. Chiche, an ex-Socialist, has been one of the president’s critics on the left, a group judging him too favorable to business and urging him to “define a new horizon,” as Mr. Chiche put it.

Frederic Keck, an anthropologist and biosecurity expert, also at the National Center for Scientific Research, called Mr. Macron’s handling of the pandemic ‘‘pretty good.’’

“Very centralized management around the president. Very French, but also relatively efficient,” he said.

“This dissatisfaction is the reflection of an excessive demand for security,’’ Mr. Keck added. But he, too, noted that Mr. Macron was not getting much credit.

Over half the French approve of the government’s reopening plan. But they don’t approve of Mr. Macron: Just 30 to 40 percent judged him up to dealing with the epidemic. In another Figaro poll, 62 percent of respondents found Mr. Macron’s manner ‘‘arrogant’’ and ‘‘authoritarian.’’

In some ways Mr. Macron is his own worst enemy, with a style that can come off as imperious. His speeches during the crisis were lengthy and literary, both trademarks. He first reproached the French for lacking “a sense of responsibilities,” then later praised them for their discipline.

“He likes these lyrical effusions, and people just aren’t keen on that,” Mr. Galland said.

In the recent television appearance, Mr. Macron was shown meeting a group of unhappy top chefs by videoconference from the Élysée Palace.

The chefs — some of the most famous names in French cuisine, including Alain Ducasse — didn’t conceal their frustration at being forced to stay closed during the lockdown.

“We’re not optimistic about the survival of about half of our restaurants,” Mr. Ducasse said.

Mr. Macron was not impressed. He smiled slightly at the grumbling, then administered a lesson to the complaining chefs.

“Look, I like liberty as much as you,’’ Mr. Macron said. ‘‘But what you’ve got to remember is that it’s good to exercise this liberty in a country like France. It’s good to live in a country where the state is strong.”

He added, pointedly, “There are other countries where the state is letting people fail.”

Constant Meheut contributed reporting.


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