In France, the pandemic deepens the political divide as death toll continues to rise

In France, where more than 30,000 people with COVID-19 have died, the pandemic has become political. The national government in Paris decreed on Wednesday that, as of Saturday, all cafés, restaurants and bars in the Marseille-Aix-en-Provence region would have to close to help avoid another lockdown.

Bar and restaurant owners in the south take to the streets to protest pandemic orders issued by Paris

A protester chants outside the gates of La Timone public hospital as French Health Minister Olivier Véran visits in Marseille, southern France, on Friday. A decision to close bars and cafés in the Marseille region was a thunderbolt from Paris, with almost no liaison with the local leaders. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

In France, the pandemic has become political.

Seen from Paris, the COVID-19 virus is on the point of spinning exponentially into disaster.

Seen from the south, specifically from France's third largest city, Marseille, it feels like "an affront," in the words of the city's deputy mayor.

That's because the national government in Paris decreed on Wednesday that, as of Saturday, all cafés, restaurants and bars in the Marseille-Aix-en-Provence region would have to close. The region is now classed by the government as a "maximum alert zone," a new category two steps up from the previous "red zone" category.

The Paris region is in a reinforced alert zone, but the government only decreed that cafés and bars should close as of 10 p.m. starting after the weekend.

"It's like a stone being dropped [on us] from a bridge," said Benoît Payan, the deputy mayor of Marseille. 

Others angrily call it "Marseille bashing." Hundreds of angry bar and café owners and patrons gathered in front of the Marseille Commerical Courts on Friday to give voice to their unhappiness at what they see as unequal treatment compared to Paris.

Hundreds of restaurant and bar owners in Marseille protest after French authorities announced that they order cafes and restaurants to shut down for two weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19 on Friday. (Noemie Olive/Reuters)

"Save our bars and cafés," said one placard held high. "Unbearable," one bar owner shouted. "The bill is too steep," said another.

The city government symbolically joined the protesters when a deputy mayor announced that municipal police wouldn't fine bar and café owners if their premises were found open.

The French government of President Emmanuel Macron, like the governments in Spain and Britain, is now terrified of being drowned in a likely second wave of the virus. On Friday, there were almost 16,000 new cases of COVID-19 reported in France. The rate of infection was higher in the south than in Paris.

That number — 15,797 — compares with a peak of 7,558 cases in the first wave on March 31. After three months of a strict lockdown, the number of cases fell to exactly zero on June 25. The government decreed an end to the lockdown and tens of thousands of French vacationers, deprived of foreign trips, flooded to the beaches of the Mediterranean. 

Gradually, then faster, the numbers of infected people climbed again, and the overall number of COVID-19 cases in France has now surpassed the 500,000 mark. The country's death toll now stands at more than 31,000.

The difference between now and the spring is that, for the moment, there are fewer deaths per day. On Friday, the number was 56, compared to 1,438 on April 15. But each day, the death toll now climbs again.

The government argues that hospitals in this Mediterranean city are under strain and the closures are the only way to stem the spread of COVID-19 while avoiding new lockdowns. (Christophe Simon, Pool via The Associated Press)

The government was startled, then panicked, by the reaction in the south. The minister of health, Olivier Véran, was dispatched to Marseille on Friday to try and calm things. This, after he spoke combatively in the French parliament on Thursday, saying, "We can't force people take care of themselves if they refuse to, but we can force them to take care of others."

In Marseille Véran tried a softer tone.

"I'm not an oracle," he said. "We have to act now to avoid even harsher measures later."

He visited a hospital, where doctors told him that they were having to postpone operations for other diseases because of the resurgence of COVID-19.

Veran, right, listens to medical workers of La Timone public hospital. Each day, France is reporting thousands of new infections. More than 10 per cent of intensive care beds nationwide are now occupied by COVID-19 patients. (Christophe Simon, Pool via The Associated Press)

Later, on behalf of the government, he offered a concession. The closing of bars and cafés would only start as of Sunday night and it would be re-evaluated after seven days, not after 14 as originally announced.

France's new prime minister, Jean Castex, chose Thursday to appear on national television in a program called You Have the Floor and took questions from the hosts and viewers.

It wasn't a success.

Castex is a man of the south with a southern French accent. His task, upon being appointed in July, was to show his government would be in touch with local leaders, co-ordinating strategies and decisions with them. But the decision to close bars and cafés in the Marseille region was a thunderbolt from Paris, with almost no liaison with the local leaders.

Castex, almost shouting, told the country: "You can't play with an epidemic." He then offered balm for the wound. Café and bar owners would receive up to $15,000 in compensation for business lost.

But he fumbled badly when he admitted he hadn't downloaded the government's own COVID-19, application which tells people if they have recently been in contact with someone infected. His explanation? "It's useful if you take the subway, but, alas, I've haven't done that for a long time."

So not exactly a man of the people. An instant poll showed that fewer than half of viewers found him convincing.

Restaurant owner Rolland Schembri is among those who are frustrated with the government's orders. (Noemie Olive/Reuters)

It was just two years ago that tens of thousands of people began spontaneously demonstrating as "gilets jaunes" (yellow jackets) against what they saw as the arrogance of a distant, technocratic government in Paris.

Many of those people came from small and medium towns and cities in the south. Their anger was such that Macron scrambled to lower taxes to defuse the crisis.

The public judged the Macron government's initial handling of the COVID-19 crisis harshly. It eventually put its trust in the prime minister of the time, Edouard Philippe. Polls showed he  was considerably more popular in June than Macron.

The president promptly fired Philippe and replaced him with Castex. The idea was  that a folksy man with a local touch would be no threat and would help relaunch Macron's election chances.

Instead, a raging second wave and Castex's fumbling may have made Macron's task harder.


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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