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POLITICS

ANALYSIS: Are France’s new Covid rules enough for Macron to avoid a lockdown?

Faced with a growing fifth wave of Covid cases France has opted, unlike many of its neighbours, to avoid more lockdowns and curfews and instead focus on vaccine boosters. John Lichfield examines the political risks of this strategy.

French president Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron has avoided for now another lockdown, but will it help him at the polls? Photo: Benoit Tessier/AFP

The Zemmour virus is receding, for now. Another nasty virus is regaining ground.

Both developments – the puncturing of the racist pundit Eric Zemmour’s popularity and the arrival of a fifth wave of Covid-19 – have big implications for the presidential election in April.

Both could damage President Emmanuel Macron. Both could yet help him.

The resurgence of Covid-19 in France was expected. Acute cases remain, so far, within manageable bounds but new infections – now approaching an average of 20,000 a day – have almost doubled in the past week.

President Macron and his government have ruled out for now the kind of new social restrictions which have provoked serious unrest (much of it fomented by the far right) in Belgium and the Netherlands in recent days.

The most significant announcement by the health minister, Olivier Véran yesterday was that third or booster vaccinations would be available to all adults from Saturday, five months after their second injection – not six months later as now.

READ ALSO France opens boosters to all and sets 7 month limit on health pass

He set off an avalanche of third dose bookings, 1.2m in 12 hours. Good.

There are also “covid riots” in France but they are 6,750 kilometres away from Paris in Guadeloupe and Martinique, the French départements in the Caribbean.

The violent protests there are nominally about the firing of health workers who refuse to be vaccinated. They are driven, in fact, as much by the island’s unhealthy love-hate, dependence-rejection relationship with metropolitan France as by simplistic arguments about state control and personal liberty.

Both sets of riots are a warning, all the same, that 20 months and five waves of Covid-19 have generated a dangerous pandemic fatigue. The exception, it seems, is Britain where many (not all) people appear complacent about one of the worst Covid records of any large democracy.

Parts of the British media – even parts of the BBC – are revelling in the new Covid surge in Europe. They ignore the fact that this is the continuation of the “Delta variant” wave which started in Britain in the summer and produced inflated levels of British cases and deaths while most of Europe was spared.

Psycho-analysing Britain at present is a thankless task. Let us return to France.

President Macron had hoped by now to be talking – as he did in his TV address earlier this month – about the booming French economy and his reform plans for a second mandate. Instead, he is once again forced to make a difficult choice. Should he take draconian action – curfews, lockdowns – to flatten the new wave in its infancy? Or should he allow France to ride the new Covid wave in relative social freedom in the hope that the country’s high level of vaccination will prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by Christmas?

Since the pandemic began in France in March 2020, Macron has alternated between taking decisive early action and hesitating – and then having his hand forced by events. I recall giving him only 5 out of ten for his management of the first 12 months of the pandemic.

I think he has done much better since then. The health pass, announced on July 12th, was a master-stroke. Without it, France would not now have such high levels of vaccination (90 percent of adults, 76 percent of the total population) and would now be facing harsh, new, social restrictions.

The announcements by the health minister, Oliver Veran, on Thursday fall into the wait-and-hope rather than decisive-and-early category. The wearing of masks in indoor public will return. Booster doses will become a new condition of the health pass from January 15th.

READ ALSO Calendar: When do France’s new Covid measures come into force?

Is all of this enough? Who knows? No one can say for certain what has produced this fifth wave of a pandemic which had – once again – appeared to be under control. Various plausible explanations are given: cold weather forcing people indoors; slackening respect for distancing measures; fading vaccine effectiveness; the tenacity and virulence of the nasty Delta variant.

Almost two years into the pandemic, the epidemiological experts are still struggling to know how the virus works.

All of the epidemiological experts, that is, except Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Both have made statements this week suggesting that health passes, social restrictions, even vaccines are wrong-headed, overrated and quite possibly useless.

They – and other candidates – hope to gain electoral advantage from either Covid fatigue or Covid calamity in the next couple of months.

Depending on the outcome, they will claim: a) Macron didn’t do enough;  b) Macron did too much.

Macron’s electoral hopes do not entirely stand or fall on Covid but they will be heavily influenced by it. If France can avoid a new lockdown or even new curfews, Macron’s handling of the pandemic will have been vindicated. He should then win easily.

If there is a new lockdown, all bets are off.

The shrinking of the “Zemmour virus” is a similarly double-edged sword for the President.

If Zemmour deflates completely (unlikely) Marine Le Pen will be Macron’s opponent in the two candidate second round on April 24th and Macron will defeat her. If Zemmour deflates only a little, both he and Le Pen could be edged out of the run-off.

Macron would then face whichever centre-right candidate emerges from the Les Républicains primary next week. That, as I have long argued, would be a much tougher battle for Macron.

READ ALSO Who’s who in the crowded race to unseat Macron

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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