Macron Returns France to Lockdown as Vaccinations Lag

PARIS — After more than a year of lockdowns and months of a sputtering vaccination campaign, Europe’s efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic suffered another setback on Wednesday as President Emmanuel Macron of France announced the start of a third national lockdown in a desperate move to halt a new deadly wave.

With infections surging, hospitals swelling with patients and the virus now reaching into classrooms, Mr. Macron effectively abandoned a gamble to keep France open in the hope that a steady pace of vaccinations would make a lockdown unnecessary. He said that restrictions currently covering areas with about one-third of the country’s population would be extended nationwide, and that schools would be closed for three weeks.

As the tally of coronavirus deaths relentlessly pushed close to the 100,000 mark, Mr. Macron gave in to scientists and opposition politicians who had been pressing for a lockdown in recent weeks, and joined the list of European nations already hunkering down before the virus.

Mr. Macron’s announcement — coming at the end of an uncharacteristically warm, summerlike day during which some Parisians could be seen outside in short sleeves or light dresses — reversed the stance he had taken since early this year.

In late January, even as neighboring countries were applying restrictive measures and his own scientific advisers were advising him to do the same, Mr. Macron rejected a new national lockdown, hoping that his government could tighten restrictions just enough to fight back a rise in infections while people got vaccinated.

That strategy seemed to be working for some weeks, with Mr. Macron and his entourage celebrating themselves for the president’s political boldness. But by mid-March, infections rose sharply and the vaccination campaign failed to gather speed, amid the disarray of the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Both political opponents and some scientists said he had “lost his gamble.’’

For Mr. Macron, the timing of Wednesday’s announcement was particularly significant: the introduction of yet more restrictions a year after France’s first lockdown and a year before presidential elections in which voters are expected to judge his presidency on his handling of the pandemic.

Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris, said that the handling of the coronavirus crisis had become a political challenge for Mr. Macron, who has long promised to make government effective and who had “taken personal responsibility’’ in opposing a third national lockdown.

“What appears today is, on the contrary, the idea of a head of state who plays it by ear and who doesn’t really know where he’s going,” Mr. Cautrès said, adding, “The judgment that the French will make of the handling of the crisis will be the pillar of the 2022 election.’’

As health officials have recently issued increasingly dire warnings, France on Tuesday reported more than 5,000 people in intensive care units for the first time since last April, with bed shortages in hospitals in the most affected areas becoming acute. During the second national lockdown last fall, Mr. Macron had predicated the lifting of restrictions on daily new infections falling below 5,000. But over the past week, France has recorded an average daily tally of 37,000 new cases.

Much of Mr. Macron’s gamble appeared to be based on an efficient vaccine rollout that never materialized.

The health authorities on Tuesday said that about 8.3 million people had received at least a first shot of the coronavirus vaccine, or about 12 percent of the total population.

But France, like much of the rest of the European Union, still lags behind some other countries in its vaccine rollout. Britain has vaccinated 46 percent of its population and the United States 29 percent, according to data from The New York Times.

Despite the worsening situation, Mr. Macron has argued that his gamble in January had not been wrong because his decision had not led to the explosion of cases that had been predicted.

“I can state that I don’t have any mea culpas,’’ he told a French newspaper last Sunday.

Antoine Flahault, the director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, said that the French government had generally followed the advice of scientists until late January. But, on Jan. 29, Mr. Macron rejected the advice of his own scientific council — a government body that the president had set up last year to advise him on coronavirus issues and that had pressed for a strict four-week lockdown to prevent a third wave of contaminations.

Mr. Flahault said that despite the government’s decision to keep things open, no new measures were put in place to prevent the resurgence that followed.

“For the entire month of February, there’s going to be an absence of goals, an absence of real strategy,’’ he said.

The government responded to the worsening situation in mid-March by measures that were described in the news media as a third “lockdown’’ but that Mr. Macron’s government tried to portray in other terms. Among restrictions that affected a third of the French population, businesses considered nonessential were forced to close, people had their outdoor activities limited to within six miles of their homes, and travel to and from affected regions was banned.

Politically, Mr. Macron’s gamble reflected the reality that, in France’s current republican system of government, power is intensely concentrated in the hands of the president. As in previous key moments of the epidemic, rumors had circulated for days before Mr. Macron’s Wednesday speech, with ministers admitting, albeit anonymously, to the French media that they had no idea what measures would be implemented.

In recent months, the Élysée has tried to finesse Mr. Macron’s handling of the epidemic, distancing him when trouble has emerged and moving him closer when things have looked up.

That strategy has sometimes taken on strange twists, as when his entourage this week seemed to try to fend off criticism that Mr. Macron had ignored the advice of epidemiologists. Unlike at the start of the epidemic, they said, Mr. Macron was much less dependent on experts because he had studied and read so much on the virus.

“The president has acquired a real expertise on issues of health,’’ his national education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was quoted as saying in Le Monde. “It’s not an inaccessible subject for an intellect like his and given the significant time he’s devoted to it for several months.’’

Le Monde related how people close to Mr. Macron “were impressed by the mastery of the head of state, who has kept up with numerous research studies on the subject of the coronavirus.’’ According to the article, Mr. Macron was now capable of “challenging” his own health minister and experts.

“Emmanuel Macron wanted to instill a rather heroic narrative about himself,’’ said Mr. Cautrès, the political scientist. “He is the one who faces all the storms, all the difficulties.’’

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