Emmanuel Macron subjected France to a two-hour primetime television interview on Wednesday evening which must have been a pre-Christmas treat for the nation.
Just under four million tuned in to see Macron discussing his achievements as president in what was a polished performance; not since Tony Blair has a world leader been such a consummate actor as Macron. He declined to confirm that he will be standing for a second term in April's presidential election but his people know that he will.
There was one fly in the ointment, however, a buzz which has been distracting Macron for months: Covid. France is only just emerging from a 'fifth wave' of the virus which last month prompted the government to launch its booster campaign and, among other measures, close nightclubs. That wave was well-timed for Macron, petering out in the middle of December, thereby allowing him to munificently decree a near normal Christmas after the misery of last year.
And then Omicron comes along. As one broadcaster gloomily asked on Tuesday: ‘Why are they already talking about a sixth wave?’
Why indeed? This wasn't part of Macron's grand plan, and it hardly fits with the image of a leader who has got Covid under control. The first round of the presidential election is in April, by which time France would have endured over two years of some of the most stringent restrictions in the West: who can ever forget having to fill out a form just to walk the dog or buy a baguette? Of parks closed, of schools shut and then last winter of 6pm curfews, and bars and restaurants standing empty for more than six months. Not to mention the mask wearing, the Covid passports and the broken promises. In July the charisma-free prime minister Jean Castex told the country that receiving two vaccines guaranteed a lifetime’s protection against Covid.
It turns out that wasn’t the case, as Castex was reminded last month when he tested positive for Covid. This, in the eyes of Macron's opponents, was more evidence that he and his government haven’t a clue what they’re doing. In the autumn for example, it was revealed that one in five hospital beds are not being used because of a shortage of staff and it was also disclosed that 5,700 hospital beds were closed in 2020. The failings of the NHS during the pandemic have surprised few in Britain but the weaknesses in the French health system has come as a shock.
Macron needs a scapegoat, someone to blame for the balls-up, so step forward Boris Johnson. The decision to place unprecedented travel restrictions on Britons entering France is purely political. Omicron is already in France, and has been for a fortnight, so these new measures will serve no purpose other than to deal a severe financial blow to France's ski resorts which were relishing the arrival of the big-spending Brits. Christophe Lavaut, director general of the Val d'Isère resort, was apoplectic on hearing the news. ‘To announce that two days before the holidays, it's shocking!’ he said. ‘The loss of revenue is going to be phenomenal, it’s the economic balance of the resort which is in danger.’
Does Macron care? Britain has been his political punch-bag for the last couple of years and there may also be a sly wish to inflict a further wound on Johnson. After all, can't Macron say he is justifiably being prudent given the hysteria and terror that Downing Street has stoked for the past week? Never mind that South African doctors continue to insist that Omicron is a mild form of the virus. Johnson says it is potentially lethal so it is only natural that Macron takes what he deems as appropriate measures. Had the Prime Minister been more measured in his response to Omicron it’s unlikely France would have acted the way it has today.
But closing the border to all but French nationals and their British spouses (does being married to a French national make you immune from Omicron?) won't save France from this latest variant. A sixth wave is on its way, set to sweep over a country already reaching the end of its Covid tether.
The title of Macron's television interview last night was ‘Where is France Going?’ and he'll be desperate to avoid the answer to that being: ‘into another lockdown’. That won't sit well with a fractious electorate just weeks before they go to the polls.
Macron and Johnson have never been attuned, but perhaps losing the confidence of their people in their handling of the pandemic will finally give them something in common.