France Heads to Monthlong Lockdown as Virus Gains in Europe


French President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide four-week lockdown, closing schools and business, in the latest and alarming sign that Europe is yet again losing control of the pandemic.

“We did everything we could to make these decisions as late as possible, when they became strictly necessary. That is now,” Macron said in a televised address on Wednesday. New variants make the virus “more contagious and deadlier.”

The French leader implored the nation to make an extra effort as the lockdown comes into force on Saturday. Restrictions will be flexible this weekend, during the Easter holidays, to allow people to relocate within regions. Seventy-one percent of French said they approved of the decision to extend restrictions, according to a snap Harris International poll.

Still, it represents a policy reversal for Macron. He had favored a localized approach, which the U.K. had also tried with little success, and his rejection of advice for stricter measures sooner comes with political risks a year out from presidential elections. Macron acknowledged mistakes in handling the pandemic, but said the nation was learning from them.

Last week, he had made a point of saying he’d give “no mea culpa.” Either way, a lockdown comes at an economic cost, with 150,000 stores shut. The finance ministry said the cost of measures, including furloughs and tax relief, would rise to 11 billion euros ($13 billion) a month from 7.2 billion euros.

The situation in France has been worsening since December, with new Covid cases rising to 69,590 per million, nearly twice the number in Germany, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. There are 1,417 deaths per million since the start of the pandemic, putting France just shy of the 1,529 seen in Brazil.

Wednesday evening Italy also extended its partial shutdown well into April, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government saying current restrictions on movement and business openings in high-risk areas will remain in place until the end of April 30. Extra measures include making vaccination mandatory for medical staff.

The resurgence in the region’s outbreak is a setback for governments, whose plans to get life back to normal and revive their economies have already been stymied by a sluggish vaccine rollout across the EU.

Germany is also struggling with a “third wave” of the disease, and the incidence rate per 100,000 people edged up again on Thursday, after more than doubling in the past month.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has threatened to seize control of pandemic strategy after accusing regional leaders of failing to enforce measures agreed with her government strictly enough. Germany’s current virus curbs, including the closing of non-essential stores, gyms and cultural venues, are due to remain in place until at least April 18.

Last week, Germany designated the whole of France an area of high incidence. That means that if you have visited France in the previous 10 days, you need to present a negative test on entry that has been carried out within the previous 48 hours.

So far, the EU has administered just 15 doses per 100 people, less than a third of what the U.K. has managed, according to Bloomberg’s Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker. The U.S. has given 45 shots per 100 people.

The bloc’s vaccine campaign has been plagued by delays in deliveries from AstraZeneca Plc and concerns over the safety of its vaccine. Many EU states have also been slow in administering the doses they have received.

Closing Schools

In his address, that lasted some 30 minutes, Macron spoke extensively about education. Schools, including day-care centers, will shut for three weeks from April 12 to April 26, he said though a chunk that coincides with the holidays when kids would be home anyway. Still, it was something Macron had wanted to avoid as he had taken great pride in keeping classrooms going.

“We are one of the few countries that kept schools open because we believe in this investment in young people, our young people need to learn and no one knows the long-term social and economic consequences the lockdowns will have on them,” Macron said.

Other measures include:

  • Unemployment benefits for parents who can’t work from home
  • State support to closed sectors will be extended
  • Rules forcing non-essential businesses to close will be extended nationwide

More than 8.5 million French people have received at least a jab. That’s around 12% of the population. The campaign, which has focused on older and more vulnerable people, is paying off, with fewer deaths among those above 80, Macron insisted.

France is one of the most vaccine-skeptical countries in the world and trust in the Astra shot has been diminished. But for Macron, the way out the crisis is now clear.

“We are doing everything to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate,” he said. “Without rest, without day off. Saturday and Sunday like during the week.”