In Depth

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.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world - and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda - try The Week magazineStart your trial subscription today –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

“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.”

Recommended

Covid-19: everything you need to know about coronavirus
coronavirus.jpg
Coronavirus

Covid-19: everything you need to know about coronavirus

Indian Wells tennis cancelled - is Wimbledon in danger?
Novak Djokovic kisses the winner’s trophy after beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final
In Brief

Indian Wells tennis cancelled - is Wimbledon in danger?

Coronavirus impact on sport: ‘serious concerns’ for Olympics
Officials at the Japan Coast Guard base in Yokohama where a cruise ship is in quarantine following an outbreak of coronavirus
In Brief

Coronavirus impact on sport: ‘serious concerns’ for Olympics

How the UK is combatting vaccine ‘blackspots’
A member of medical staff administers a Covid-19 vaccine.
Today’s big question

How the UK is combatting vaccine ‘blackspots’

Popular articles

How scientists developed a Covid-19 vaccine in record time
A nurse prepares a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
In Focus

How scientists developed a Covid-19 vaccine in record time

Stalin-themed kebab shop closes after one day
Tall Tales

Stalin-themed kebab shop closes after one day

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 19 Jan 2021
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 19 Jan 2021

Free 6 issue trial then continue to