As France emerges from 2 gruelling months of isolation, Macron hopes to win back citizens' trust

COVID-19 has devastated France and seriously damaged public trust in President Emmanuel Macron, writes Don Murray.

More than 26,000 people have died of COVID-19 in France

Although France has been one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, President Emmanuel Macron chose May 11 as the day to begin easing societal restrictions. (The Associated Press)

The cartoon on the front page of France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde, on May 6 said it all.

The patient, wearing a mask and lying on a psychiatrist's couch, was asking an anguished question. "Why, why, did I choose the date of May 11?"

The patient is actually French President Emmanuel Macron. He's not the only government leader feeling the strain.

The white patch in the beard of the country's prime minister, Edouard Philippe, seems to have doubled since France went into lockdown almost eight weeks ago.

In that time, more than 26,000 French people have died of COVID-19. There have been more than 137,000 cases, putting France fourth in Europe after the U.K, Italy and Spain for cases and deaths.

May 11 is the day the country is cautiously relaxing its strict lockdown rules.

Macron's cartoon anguish stems from several sources — the battle against COVID-19, which many have criticized for starting far too late, as well as the worry that with the virus still red-hot on government maps in the Paris area, déconfinement might release more death.

Strict lockdown

For eight weeks, no one except medical workers and those in essential jobs has been allowed out for more than an hour and more than a kilometre from their residence. And they've had to arm themselves with an interior ministry attestation, downloaded and printed or on their phone, specifying why they went out and at what time — or face a fine. 

The police have enforced these rules, and forcefully. According to French interior ministry statistics as of April 23, there were more than 15 million checks by police and 915,000 fines. And the fines are heavy — 135 euros (about $205 Cdn).

That means about 12,350,000 euros ($18.6 million) that the government says will go to French hospitals.

A police officer checks a woman's self-certified note for being outside before a two minute commemoration near the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris last month. French police have given out 915,000 fines for violating the countrywide quarantine. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Just days before the end of the shutdown, I saw five police officers on bicycles surround a small 85-year-old man. He had no attestation but protested he was simply going to the doctor next door. He was warned, but not fined.

A couple of friends were not so lucky. One was fined for standing in line outside a store with his nine-year-old daughter — the girl didn't have her official piece of paper.  

Another friend was fined for sitting on a bench on the sidewalk. Not allowed. She protested that she had her attestation and was over 70 and just resting because she had a bad leg. She was still fined.

She wasn't happy. "Abusing petty power," she said. She's appealing.

New controls

With déconfinement, the attestations will no longer be needed. And instead of one kilometre, people will be able to travel up to 100 km from their home.

Trains and the Paris Metro will resume service at 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. There will be strict controls on numbers, and passengers will have to wear masks on all public transport.

Elementary schools will open, although up to half of parents in many regions say they are refusing to send their children right away. But beaches from Brittany to the Mediterranean will stay closed, provoking public muttering even from allies of Macron.

The entrance of the closed restaurant Le Procope in Paris. Restaurants and cafés will remain closed until June. (Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

"It's a sledgehammer blow," Didier le Gac, a Brittany backbencher from Macron's own party, told the newspaper Le Figaro. Le Gac wondered why Parisians could board a crowded subway car, but his constituents couldn't walk the beaches next door.

Shops will reopen but restaurants and cafés remain closed until June. I did discover that the fishmonger at the open air market, closed for two months, had taken to delivering his wares right to customers' doors every Saturday.

Like many cafés and restaurants in Paris, the restaurant across the street from me sells fresh produce from its farm suppliers out the back door.

The owner also cooks one dish a day for takeout. One day recently he called to the cook to hurry up with the grilled duck. It was the customer's birthday. An assistant cook rushed out with two glasses of wine for the waiting couple. 

Wine keeps, but not beer. The French association of brewers announced it had poured 10 million litres of beer — four Olympic swimming pools — down the drain.

The lockdown has also released a poison of anxiety. I know friends who are too scared to go out, and who on a daily basis wash railings, banisters, shoes and even packages brought to their door with bleach.

People sit and walk along the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on Friday, the 53rd day of the lockdown in France and three days before the easing of restrictions are set to begin. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)

Saving the economy

But the government is also worried about the near-death of the French economy during this crisis. Officially, the country has lost 500,000 jobs. The number of unemployed has shot up to 3.17 million.

In desperation, the French government has put up 120 billion euros ($182 billion) in subsidies to companies, largely to ensure they keep paying employees.

Macron has engaged in three huge struggles in the past 18 months — against the "gilets jaunes," the spontaneous front of poorer people struggling in the provinces who felt abandoned by the government; against the public service unions, who unleashed weeks of strikes against pension reforms that would lower payments for many of their members; and now, against COVID-19.

While the government has been politically wounded in each of these battles, the fight against the virus has caused particularly serious damage. In February, there was a sense of horror at what was happening in Italy, but also the comfortable conviction that it couldn't happen in France. 

Then it did, and the country discovered its government was as ill-prepared as Italy's. 

For eight weeks, no one except medical workers and those in essential jobs has been allowed out of their home for more than an hour. (The Associated Press)

The focus of public anger was the lack of masks and protective equipment for front-line health workers. That anger only intensified when Le Monde revealed that as the crisis built in February, government officials were still destroying stocks of masks under a plan agreed to in 2017.

That helps explain why an international poll carried out by the French polling firms Cevipof and IPSOS-Sopra Steria shows 62 per cent of the French are dissatisfied with how their government has handled COVID-19. 

That's a higher level of dissatisfaction than in other European countries, including Italy and even Britain, which has the highest death toll in Europe.

More bad news for Macron: His personal poll numbers, which bounced up at the beginning of the crisis, are falling back. Just 40 per cent say they are satisfied with his leadership.

A pharmacist in Nice, France, serves a customer from behind newly installed protective screens on May 2. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

'We have to ride the tiger'

The embattled president now reaches for colourful metaphors to convince his fellow citizens of the need to soldier on as the country carefully unlocks its doors.

"We have to ride the tiger, and tame it," he told representatives of French cultural industries as he promised hundreds of millions in subsidies to them on May 6. "The tiger [the virus] isn't going to disappear, he'll still be there. And fear will still be there in society. The only way to stop the tiger from devouring us is to ride it."

The worry about a second wave of infection is still so great that 40 per cent of the country remains a "red zone" (where the infection rate is still high) on government maps — and that includes Paris.

Macron, centre, has been heavily criticized for the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in France. (AFP via Getty Images)

There will be little let-up in that zone. Parks will remain closed. Distancing must be observed. Vulnerable people, those over 70 and anyone with chronic conditions, are being asked to stay confined.

And the prime minister has said the country's borders will remain shut through the summer. There'll be no foreign vacations for anyone.

Cafés and restaurants may be allowed to reopen by June, but the restaurant owner across the street won't bother, even if allowed. The rules, he said, will be strict — what with thorough disinfection and cleaning and distanced tables.

He'll continue selling his daily dish and vegetables out the back door until the fall.

"Then we'll reopen," he said. "And we'll see."

WATCH | What will cities look  like post-COVID-19? Vilnius is experimenting with one model:

How cities might change to allow for physical distancing

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Some cities are looking at ways to change outdoor spaces to allow for physical distancing, including closing roads to traffic. 1:57


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.

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