France Holds Off on New Lockdown, Worries About Unrest Risk
(Bloomberg) -- The French government is delaying an agonizing decision to lock down the country once more, mulling options to slow new variants of Covid-19 as the current curfew is considered insufficient.
President Emmanuel Macron “has asked for additional analysis” on the spread of the virus before deciding on any new restrictions, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said after a defense cabinet meeting Wednesday. Maintaining the status quo is “unlikely” as the 6 p.m. - 6 a.m. national curfew isn’t doing enough, and a strict lockdown is one option being considered, he said.
Macron is under pressure to shut down the economy for the third time in less than a year, as doctors and researchers raise the alarm about mutations of the coronavirus spreading through the country.
Yet with a presidential race coming up next year, the French leader also has to navigate criticism of his handling of the crisis, including a slow start to the vaccination campaign. And while surging U.K. cases and deaths demonstrate the perils of the new virus variants, riots in the Netherlands against a government curfew show the risks of tighter measures.
Christophe Castaner, head of Macron’s party at the National Assembly, told Le Parisien newspaper there was a risk of “civil disobedience” in France, too, should a new lockdown be imposed.
Voters have much less appetite for strict measures now than at the beginning of the pandemic, with 93% of adults approving of the first lockdown, compared to just 67% in favor of a third, according to a recent Elabe opinion poll.
“I know there is a fatigue,” Attal said during the press conference. A decision on whether to tighten measures will depend on health indicators, he said.
France’s second lockdown started late October and ended mid-December with a curfew that was expanded earlier this month. It brought only partial relief for the health system, with hospitalizations and intensive-care patients remaining more than five times higher than in August.
Restaurants, cafes, clubs, theaters, cinemas and sports venues have been closed since October and are being propped up by government aid, like many areas of the economy.
A third lockdown would cause an economic contraction by 10% to 18% compared to pre-crisis levels, according to a Ministry of Finance study cited by Parisien, depending on the severity of the measures. During the first -- and strictest lockdown -- in the spring of 2020, activity contracted by more than a third.
While the government is banking on a strong rebound of its economy in the second half of the year, another lockdown would threaten its growth forecasts.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called a third lockdown a “last resort” on Wednesday. A recent survey by the French statistics agency showed rising concern in households in January, as consumers plan to save more cash for difficult times. Consumer sentiment is at its lowest since November.
“Let’s look at where we are,” Le Maire said. “There’s no haste.”
The more contagious U.K. variant of the virus represented 9.4% of cases in an analysis of positive tests in the Paris region between Jan. 11 and 21. Across France, hospitalizations have been climbing in the past two weeks to the highest level since early December, and the number of severely ill Covid patients in intensive care rose above 3,000 this week.
Macron could still make a final decision in the coming days -- the defense cabinet, a small and close-knit group of ministers who gather around the president and prime minister, have met over weekends in the past.
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