FRANCE

Macron under pressure to clarify Covid-19 strategy in televised interview

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to outline and clarify his government’s strategy for dealing with a surging wave of Covid-19 infections during a televised interview on Wednesday evening.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to outline and clarify his government’s strategy for dealing with a surging wave of Covid-19 infections during a televised interview on Wednesday evening. AP Photo/Lewis Joly

French President Emmanuel Macron was to outline and clarify his government’s strategy for dealing with a surging wave of Covid-19 infections during a televised interview on Wednesday evening, the first time the public will hear him speak at length about the epidemic since July.

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Macron will speak with two journalists for about 45 minutes in a televised interview in the Elysée presidential palace Wednesday evening, his first long intervention since a similar interview on the 14 July national holiday.

Three months after that interview, which mainly focussed on economic recovery from the first wave of the epidemic, the French president faces criticism over his administration’s handling of the health crisis, with varying and often confusing temporary restrictions failing to reverse growing infections and hospitalisations.

The president will announce “longer-term measures”, sources in Macron’s office told AFP agency. “The French people need clarity for the mid to long term. They need a trajectory, a calendar for the months to come.”

With the French government warning the country has entered a strong second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, the president is under pressure to come up with an effective and coherent plan.

“Macron will be expected to show he has a hand on the epidemic, with a clarified strategy and strong measures,” Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, professor of political communication at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, told RFI. “Nothing would be worse for the country or for Macron than a hollow discourse.”

Possible curfew

Prime Minister Jean Castex said Tuesday that no options would be ruled out when it came to new restrictions, though the government had repeatedly said further general or even localised confinements would be last-ditch efforts.

The presidential sources cited by AFP appeared to hint at a generalised evening curfew, which would effectively stop parties and private gatherings that are not legally possible to ban.

“If there is a curfew, it will apply to everyone. How to explain to a restaurant that has to close that a theatre can remain open? It will be extremely clear,” the sources said.

The references to clarity suggest Macron is aware that whatever he says has to be more consistent than the communication strategy used so far.

“There is a lot of anxiety among the French people, because the orders are constantly contradictory,” Moreau-Chevrolet said. “We’ve been told to be careful, but also to go ahead with holidays. There may be a curfew, even though they say everything is fine in schools.

“People have been reproached for being too lax after the confinement, but let’s remember that the message after the confinement was that happy days had returned. Sooner or later, somebody, and that is the role of the president, has to draw a line and say what the real strategy and measures are, in a way that clarifies things.”

Other restrictions might include expanded distance working, limited transport and closures of public buildings in the evening. 

Government criticised for lack of preparation

On Tuesday, an independent review of the government’s handling of the epidemic highlighted failures in the anticipation, preparation and management of the public health crisis, with reference to depleted stocks of masks, late rollout of tests, lack of coordination between services and missing emphasis on prevention.

The review, whose final report is due in December, highlights the pressure on Macron’s administration to show it has learnd from past mistakes in the coming months. But for Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, there has been a lingering problem in the political response to the health crisis from the start.

“It’s the denial of the biological and sanitary reality of the epidemic, the refusal to accept that nature sometimes imposes its own order, rhythm and decisions,” he said. “France’s leaders are not accustomed to having their decisions dictated to them, even when it’s a virus doing it.”

Political dilemma

The government has been desperate to avoid a repeat of the nearly two-month confinement between March and May that triggered a deep economic recession, but which to date has been the only proven method of reducing infections. But indicators show tougher restrictions are needed if indicators are to decline.

“It’s a difficult context, because there are elections coming, first major regional elections [in March 2021] and then the presidential elections [in spring 2022]. We’re already in an electoral cycle,” Moreau-Chevrolet said.

“When you have a crisis like this one, which requires courageous and potentially unpopular decisions at a moment you are trying to make yourself as popular as possible, it’s a contradiction in terms that is very difficult to manage, and this is the exact problem facing Emmanuel Macron.”

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