Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
COVID-19 arrived in Italy on the 30th of January. Two months later, Italy counted more than 130,000 cases and 15,000 deaths. France is said to be 11 days behind its neighbour, in terms of number of cases and deaths due to the virus. For now, 100,000 cases have been declared and more than 8,000 people died from COVID-19.
Like in most other countries, it was doctors and medical experts that initially sounded the alarm, warning the population and the government that this is the most serious health crisis France is facing in 100 years. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, publicly addressed the situation on television on the 12th of March for the first time, in a speech address to French citizens. In less than a week, he put the entire country under a full lockdown, allowing people to go to work, to grocery shopping or to seek medical assistance, as well as a form of daily exercise. In order to go out, citizens must carry a document they sign explaining the reason of their exit and can be fined up to €200 today if they do not. Whilst it seems like a lot of people have discovered a passion for jogging overnight or have the urgent need to walk their dogs 12 times a day, the lockdown is widely respected in France.
The President has said several times that the nation is “at war” against the virus and said he would mobilise resources to fight COVID-19 “whatever it costs”. While those words are extreme and dismayed many people, I personally think using such terms was necessary for everyone to understand the seriousness of the situation.
As a result, he has put in place several policies to combat the impact of the virus. These include the creation of a solidarity fund for small companies experiencing a sharp drop in turnover, the postponement of social security contributions and income tax payments for firms and entrepreneurs. There has also been an extension of the seasonal suspension of evictions from dwellings – typically in France, people cannot be evicted from their homes from Winter to Spring and this has now been extended and there is now a stronger policy of requisition of hotel rooms to protect homeless people.
The EU is providing 100 billion euros to fight unemployment, funding from which France will definitely benefit, but maybe to a lesser extent than Italy and Spain which are more severely affected. The French state and the EU are very generous but what cost will the people pay once the situation gets better?
Despite these measures, it seems that French people feel that these measures were taken too late. French citizens mostly deplore the fact that the government maintained municipal elections on the weekend of the 14th of March, despite Macron closing schools and universities two days before. Whilst the measures did come into force sooner than measures in the UK, the reality is that France now faces the terrifying situations currently being experienced by Italy and Spain, France’s two closest neighbours,
Despite being pro-European, I was personally disappointed at the policies put in place that only closed internal EU borders at first. France followed EU guidelines, meaning that the French borders remain open to other EU countries; the only restrictions in place are from non—EU countries. In times of crisis like the one we are going through right now, I would have expected Macron to close the French borders, like Poland did on the 13th of March. That would have undermined the Schengen agreement but at least could have limited the outbreak of the virus.
However, EU membership will help France fight the virus. The EU is coordinating a common purchase of ventilators, masks and protective gear, and the fact that the EU’s internal borders are still open permitted Germany – which has a similar number of cases to France but with a lower death rate – to take French patients. In fact, internal borders were prevented from closing by the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, for vital medical supplies. It is also worth noting that France, just like the UK, managed to repatriate many of its nationals thanks to EU logistical and financial support. This EU solidarity is therefore crucial for France to fight COVID-19.