PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is gearing up for his country to slowly exit its lockdown phase in mid-May, after months of fighting the coronavirus.
The French president announced an extension Monday of the country’s lockdown measures until May 11, but said restrictions would gradually begin to ease thereafter.
Macron’s marked change in tone on Monday from previous speeches in which he declared “war” on the virus to expressing the more reassuring emergence of “hope” comes as public trust in the government’s ability to effectively respond to the crisis has collapsed over the past three weeks, dropping from 55 percent on March 19-20 to 38 percent on April 8-9, according to an IFOP poll from Sunday.
“We will have better days, we will know happy days again,” Macron said, seeming to borrow from the speech British Queen Elizabeth II gave on April 5.
The French president also showed more humility than usual in Monday’s speech, his fourth to the nation in a month. He acknowledged that he didn’t yet have all the answers about what comes next, and admitted authorities hadn’t handled the crucial issues of masks and other protective gear as well as they should have.
“Were we prepared for this crisis? Evidently, not enough,” Macron said. “The situation, let’s be honest, revealed faults, shortcomings.”
Here are four key things to know as Paris sets out its plan for bringing day-to-day life back to normal.
1. What will open first
Macron announced he would extend the lockdown an additional month until May 11, setting out a staggered easing of restrictions that will start with schoolchildren and the active workforce, and exclude the most vulnerable, seniors and the entertainment industry.
Kindergartens, grade and high schools will progressively reopen as of May 11, but Macron didn’t specify how authorities intended to ensure social distancing measures given classes on average have 30 students. Those were the first public spaces he shut in his first address to the nation on March 12, as fears mounted that children could be super-spreaders of the virus. Universities, Macron said, won’t be able to hold classes in person “until the summer.”
“On May 11, it will also be about allowing the biggest number to go back to work, to restart our industry, our retail sector and our services,” said Macron, adding that rules will have to be worked out between authorities and trade unions to ensure proper sanitary precautions in the workplace. The government will announce a more detailed lockdown exit plan by the end of April, Macron said.
But the easing of measures doesn’t mean the danger has passed in France, where nearly 15,000 people have died from COVID-19 so far and authorities have confirmed approximately 100,000 cases of the coronavirus.
“The epidemic is not under control yet,” Macron stressed.
Still, in an encouraging sign, the number of new admissions to intensive care dropped for the fifth consecutive day on Monday, with 24 fewer admissions than on Sunday, according to the health ministry.
2. What’s staying closed
The elderly, handicapped and those with pre-existing chronic conditions will have to remain under lockdown beyond May 11, because they are the most vulnerable to the disease.
“I know it is a strong constraint,” Macron said, addressing that demographic. “We will, by May 11, work on making this time more bearable for you. But you will have to try to respect it to protect yourselves.”
Cafés, restaurants, bars, cinemas and theaters, concert halls and museums will remain closed as well.
“The big festivals and events with large crowds will not be held until at least mid-July. The situation will be collectively evaluated as of mid-May, weekly, to adapt things and give you visibility,” Macron said.
Some of France’s neighbors have also started to soften restrictions, including Spain and Italy this week, sparking a public debate about whether such moves are premature. Other countries, such as China, have also been relaxing lockdown measures.
“Until further notice, our borders with non-European countries will remain closed,” Macron said.
3. Testing, masks, tracking and vaccines
Macron said society would have to change to successfully respond to the pandemic, which would involve testing a bigger portion of the population, wider use of masks, possibly electronic tracking and, eventually, a vaccine.
“The largest possible use of tests and detection is a privileged weapon to exit lockdown at the right time,” Macron said.
Macron announced the country will have the capacity to test everyone with symptoms as of May 11, though he added that “we won’t test every French person — it would have no meaning.” People who test positive for the virus will be quarantined, Macron said, without giving logistical details. Before then, testing priority will be given to seniors, medical professionals and the most vulnerable.
He added that as of May 11, the central government, in coordination with local mayors, will make general-use masks available for each citizen, as well as for workers who are most exposed. The use of masks on public transport and in other situations could also become “systematic,” said Macron, after weeks of confused government guidance.
Authorities will also explore potential use of a tracking application, “being worked on with some of our European partners,” that would be voluntary and anonymous. Macron said he wanted the French parliament to debate the use of such an app, which has raised privacy concerns, by May 11, and to gather the opinions of “competent authorities.”
He also teased an upcoming initiative on finding a coronavirus vaccine.
“The first path to exit the pandemic is vaccines,” Macron said. “Our country will invest even more massively in research, and I will announce in coming days an initiative with a number of our partners to accelerate current efforts.”
4. More self-reliance
Faced with criticism of the country’s dependence on Chinese supplies of masks, testing components and other essential medical gear, which crippled his government’s response to the pandemic, Macron once again underlined the need for French and European strategic autonomy in a range of sectors.
“We must also help our neighbors in Africa fight more effectively against the virus, help them also on the economic level by massively canceling their debt. Yes, we will never win alone,” — Emmanuel Macron
“We must rebuild our French agricultural, sanitary, industrial and technological independence and more European strategic autonomy. This will be achieved through a massive plan for our health, our research and our seniors, among other things,” Macron said.
He also called for African debt to be canceled as the pandemic is starting to reach that continent.
“We must also help our neighbors in Africa fight more effectively against the virus, help them also on the economic level by massively canceling their debt. Yes, we will never win alone,” Macron said.
Over recent weeks, he has been finalizing a support package for Africa, which he has been building in coordination with 10 African leaders. An announcement is expected soon.
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