Lockdown redux: Macron reconciles with closing schools, but experts say lessons remain

Tables and chairs in a shut classroom at the private primary school Jeanne D'Arc in Saint-Maur-des-Fosses, near Paris, amid the Covid-19 outbreak in France, March 30, 2021.
Tables and chairs in a shut classroom at the private primary school Jeanne D'Arc in Saint-Maur-des-Fosses, near Paris, amid the Covid-19 outbreak in France, March 30, 2021. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS

With 30.8 million under curfew watching on TV, French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday announced France would enter a long-delayed third national lockdown starting Sunday. Macron had pushed back against strict national measures, playing for time while France weathered setbacks in its vaccine rollout and a variant-inflected third wave inched deaths nearer the macabre 100,000 milestone. What changes this time? Will it be enough? Was Macron's appearance the coda to France's months-long ritual of fresh Covid-19 restrictions meted out bit by bit? FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


What does the third national lockdown entail?

After dissonance between Macron and his prime minister, Jean Castex, over what to call the measures the PM perhaps inadvertently deemed a lockdown ("confinement") two weeks ago, Macron avoided the label for this new regime during his address on Wednesday, instead billing the bulk of the new Covid-19 measures as three "supplemental efforts".

The first entails the increased mobilisation of medical students, retired medical personnel, the armed forces' medical service and volunteers from the country's medical reserves to boost the country's intensive-care unit capacity to "a little more than 10,000 beds in the coming days", up from the current 7,665. The number of ICU patients nationwide surpassed the 5,000 mark this week, blowing past France's second-wave peak of 4,903, even before the new nationwide measures announced to rein them in this time. Three regions, the northern Hauts-de-France, the greater Paris area, and Provence-Alpes-Côte-D'Azur, have ICU units saturated far beyond available capacity.

The second effort involves extending the measures Castex announced on March 18 – which came to be dubbed derisively a "true-false lockdown" – from 19 of France's administrative departments to the whole of mainland France as well as the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The measures include limiting travel outside one's home department without a "compelling" or professional reason and limiting the freedom to get fresh air or practice sport to a radius of 10km from one's home, albeit without any time limit between 6am and the 7pm curfew cutoff.

The expanded measures also shutter non-essential shops nationwide, although the definition of essential remains stretched well beyond the rules applied during France's March 2020 lockdown. Bookshops, music stores, car dealerships, hairdressers, florists and, Easter oblige, chocolate shops are allowed to stay open. Nationwide, the closures represent an estimated 150,000 shops, up from the estimated 90,000 shuttered two weeks ago, according to Economy Ministry figures.

Macron's third effort involves shutting down schools across the country starting Tuesday, after the Easter Monday holiday, for three weeks for kindergarteners and primary school pupils, four weeks for middle and high-school students. Two of those weeks represent a spring break synchronised for the purpose; the rest is remote learning.

>> In Paris suburbs blighted by Covid-19, ‘schools are kept open at all costs – even without teachers’

France's second national lockdown, in November, left schools open, but never did manage to bring daily infections down to below Macron's objective of 5,000 per day. They currently sit near 40,000 new registered cases per day on average, essentially doubling over the course of March.

Is this new chapter a shift in strategy?

Emphatically yes, in three ways.

Macron's announcements represent a shift away from the cherrypicking, territory-specific measures that Health Minister Olivier Véran had continued to vaunt as recently as Tuesday, in favour of measures applied nationwide.

They also represent a very significant about-face on schools, long held by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer to be virtually impervious to the transmission of Covid-19.

Critics slammed as "idiocy" Blanquer's insistence that children's "risk of contracting the virus is higher outside schools", saying the minister's conviction was not only contrary to scientific evidence but came at the cost of vanishingly few efforts to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 within schools. Health and education professionals lambasted authorities for not giving vaccination priority to teachers, delaying mask mandates for primary pupils and lagging in approving non-invasive saliva-based virus tests, not making use of devices to mitigate aerosol risks, not hiring extra personnel en masse to thin class sizes or substitute for sick teachers, not securing canteens, allowing indoor maskless sport from March even as infections spiked, and repeatedly adjusting protocols to minimise class closures amid rising infections.

>> 'A French exception': Experts call for rethink of open-schools policy amid pandemic

As the more contagious and more lethal British Covid-19 variant spread across the country in recent months, broader Covid-19 testing of schoolchildren coincided with flagrant spikes in registered infections among school populations. Pressure grew for changes to schools' Covid-19 health protocols. Late last week, Blanquer hurriedly announced a stricter protocol, saying classes would be shuttered effective Monday after a single confirmed Covid-19 infection, instead of three cases. The effect was immediate. In the French capital alone, 850 classes were shut down by Wednesday morning, up from 246 on Sunday night. Mayor Anne Hidalgo on Wednesday called for Paris schools to close, noting the "very grave" health situation and the "very great disarray" in Paris schools with a full 20,000 Parisian children out of school anyway, "either because they are ill or because their classes are closed".

Although Macron remains reluctant to use the word, the latest measures will feel a lot more like a true lockdown to the parents of France's 12 million-odd schoolchildren. The "true-false lockdown" Castex had announced just 13 days earlier to stem the third-wave tide was chided for its minimal impact on most people's daily lives.

To that extent, the new measures represent a reversal from the French president, who has expended significant energy in recent days justifying his decision to flout scientific advice by not locking the country down in January in the face of the more contagious British variant even as neighbours did. "There won't be a mea culpa from me," Macron said of that decision during his European Council press conference last week. "I don't have remorse and won't acknowledge failure."

Macron has been leery of strict lockdown measures, arguing that every day France avoided locking down completely allowed its people to "gain precious days of liberty, weeks of learning for our children". But with bars, restaurants, cinemas and museums closed since October, an overnight curfew in place nationwide since January, and Covid-19 cases soaring anyway, critics noted the freedom was limited regardless and for an unclear epidemiological reward.

The fine print: What's missing? What's next?

As has often been the case with fresh Covid-19 measures in France, the tightened restrictions announced often come with a loosening of other rules, a counter-incentive with a potential to mix the message. The faux lockdown on March 18 came with a slackened curfew hour (7pm, from 6pm) and the resumption of maskless indoor sport in schools despite burgeoning infections among schoolchildren.

The counterintuitive measure this time is a tolerance for travel over the Easter holiday weekend. Just when those already subject to travel restrictions imposed on March 18 had drawn a line under Easter travel – like the greater Paris area, where the incident rate is a hefty 650 infections per 100,000 – Macron announced a tolerance wherein "those who wish to change regions to isolate can do so over the Easter weekend".

The loophole earned a wry reaction from Toulon-based lung cancer specialist Dr Clarisse Audigier-Valette, who tweeted that it was "the best method for diffusing the British variant in regions that were not already massively affected...".

The online reservation site for France's national train network, SNCF, crashed under the weight of "very strong" traffic shortly after Macron's speech on Wednesday evening, the company reported. In the end, 130,000 bookings were made, half for the Easter weekend, although 40,000 bookings were also cancelled overall, it added, leaving trains as of Thursday far from full ahead of the holiday.

Macron's pledge to bump up the number of intensive-care unit beds by a third "in the coming days", meanwhile, also raised eyebrows in the medical community. "The 10,000 beds in intensive care are fanciful today," Dr Jérôme Marty, a general practitioner in southwestern France who heads the UFML doctors' union, tweeted in reaction.

Shortly after Macron's address on Wednesday, Dr Maurizio Cecconi, president of the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM), weighed in on a trend towards promising more places in intensive-care units to address Covid-19 challenges. "In Europe, many governments are claiming rapid ICU capacity increase," the Milan-based Cecconi wrote on Twitter. "A ventilator is not an ICU bed. Doubling the number of ICU beds with the same number of [healthcare workers] means that those teams are working double. It’s neither safe nor sustainable in the long term."

Others cited the challenges of training-up the unspecialised staff that Macron suggested could fill the breach under pandemic conditions. "In normal times, we can take people who are less well-trained and supervise them," Dr Nicolas Bruder, who heads the ICU unit at La Timone hospital in Marseille, told BFM TV. "Right now, we can't. Everybody's doing the maximum they can. We need people who are effective from tomorrow and we don't have them."

Italy's Cecconi, for his part, added facetiously on Thursday, "I have found a way to have empty ICU beds: it's called vaccinations."

The cheeky remark segues into another pressing question as France heads toward stricter measures. What about the good news? Macron, counting on a wellspring of new vaccine deliveries in April, outlined a more optimistic vaccination rollout than previously scheduled, with over 60s eligible for first doses on April 16, over 50s on May 15 and under 50s from mid-June. In France, about 12 percent have been inoculated, with 8.2 million receiving a first dose, 2.8 million the second. Previous rollout setbacks have critics understandably sceptical of overly sanguine timetables, although the addition of a fourth vaccine to France's inoculation toolbox from Johnson & Johnson later this month is an evident boon.

More specifically, Macron addressed the issue of vaccinations for teachers only fleetingly, despite suggesting recently they could begin later this month. The allusion begs the question of what, if any, measures are to be applied to make schools safer against Covid-19 transmission for when they reopen in three or four weeks' time.

Education unions are already making clear they don't want back-to-school to mean back to the status quo. In conference with the Education Ministry on Thursday, Sophie Vénétitay, of the Snes-FSU union of secondary school teachers, said going back to school for those students on May 3 could only happen "with saliva-based or antigen tests for the first weeks to break the chain of infections, a very clear vaccination calendar for teachers", and class attendance in half-groups, Agence France-Presse reported.

Similarly, Guislaine David, spokesperson for the Snuipp-FSU union of primary school teachers, demanded half-groups and a stricter health protocol when kindergartens and elementary pupils return on April 26.

Others, like the Ecoles et Familles Oubliées parents collective, have suggested using the three-week stoppage inside primary schools to install carbon-dioxide detectors to monitor exhalation levels and air purifiers to help make classrooms and canteens safer against aerosol transmission when children return.

Will it be enough?

Has France seen the last of the near-weekly announcement of drip-by-drip measures. Will Macron's "efforts" suffice?

The most significant new measure is undoubtedly the school closures, but experts note that an important knock-on effect of closing schools is forcing parents into remote work, an oft-noted shortcoming in France's anti-viral strategy. France's Labour Ministry has said, quoting a recent Harris Interactive study, that only 5.6 million of the 8.6 million French workers who could easily work remotely have been doing so. Official figures show telework has been declining steadily since November. The French government has pledged compensation for parents unable to work remotely while schools are closed this month.

"These measures go in the right direction and, coupled with restricting mobility between French departments, seem to me likely to snap the exponential dynamic" of the epidemic, epidemiologist Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP. "I don't think that three or four weeks [of closures] will suffice to come back down to low circulation of the virus, for example to fewer than 5,000 cases per day, but at least they will permit re-evaluating the situation at that point."

Perhaps France's weekly ritual, the will-they-won't-they of new restrictions announced on television, isn't quite over yet.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning