The country that burned masks: inside France’s coronavirus response
President Macron is paying a high political price for failing to contain the pandemic
When Boris Johnson was riding high in the polls back in April and even Donald Trump was a little more popular than usual, Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating hit rock bottom.
Two-thirds of French voters said their president was doing a bad job - a damning result that Politico attributes to a combination of “French exceptionalism” and the failure of the state to meet high expectations.
“The French are seldom satisfied with anything that their leaders do,” says the news site. “And given the volatility of the coronavirus crisis, there has been plenty to criticise.”
Macron himself admitted as much. “This moment, let’s be honest, has revealed cracks, shortages,” he said in a TV address on 13 April. “Like every country in the world, we have lacked gloves, hand gel, we haven’t been able to give out as many masks as we wanted to our health professionals.”
The mask shortage proved especially politically damaging after it emerged that the government had deliberately reduced its stockpile.
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“As coronavirus arrived in France this winter, staff at an army base in the east of the country were dutifully burning hundreds of thousands of facemasks,” The Times reports. “The incinerations were part of a money-saving programme to run down the state’s stock of 1.7 billion protective masks that had reached a peak in 2011.”
After false alarms with Sars and swine flu, ministers had decided they would no longer hold protective equipment in reserve. So when the coronavirus pandemic began, they were forced to try to buy masks on the open market, but could secure only 14 million per week when 40 million were needed.
“France has also been lamentably sluggish in building up its testing capacities,” says Politico. According to online statistics portal Statista, France has carried out less than half as many Covid-19 tests as the UK.
Macron also seemed reluctant to impose a strict lockdown. He “allowed gatherings of up to 1,000 people” well into March, says Vox, and did little to modify his own behaviour. On 6 March, the president “visited a retirement home” and then went to the theatre, “to show that life could continue unperturbed”.
Many of the criticisms surrounding his government may sound familiar in the UK, where testing has fallen short of targets, government advice has been inconsistent, and protective equipment often in short supply. For the French, however, that’s not the point.
“Judged by British standards, France’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has not been too disastrous, with 145,555 infections and 28,530 deaths,” says The Times. “But France does not judge itself by British standards.”