The past week has brought no let-up in France's rigorous COVID-19 lockdown regime, but it has brought a perceptible change of mood. People have their eyes fixed on the light at the end of the tunnel, because they now have a clear idea of where it lies. Suddenly, the talk – social distance permitting – is less of the ordeal than of what will follow it.
In his third prime-time televised address since the crisis began, President Macron told his nation on the evening of Easter Monday that lockdown, imposed four weeks earlier, would come to an end on 11 May, and set out the basis for a phased return to normality thereafter. He also announced that arrangements had been made to ensure that everyone who needed it would have access to a face mask, and that both healthcare staff and anyone experiencing the now familiar symptoms would be tested: the target is 500,000 tests a week, against the current 25,000.
There was a measured humility, not a quality universally celebrated in Macron, when he accepted that government had been too slow to address PPE shortages. He promised that the appropriate lessons would be drawn. He had spent the previous days in wide-ranging consultations with experts and ministers, and evidently felt that a sufficiently informed consensus had emerged to announce a specific, if still provisional, exit strategy. Monday 11 May remains an aspiration rather than a bankable commitment, ministers say, but one with determination behind it. '11 May is an objective,' said Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner. 'It is a date we must achieve by respecting the lockdown.'
Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, followed up by identifying two core principles for the period post-11 May: to maintain sufficient hospital capacity, and to limit the spread of the virus. He was blunt that no cure was yet in sight: 'We will have to learn to live with the virus'.
Macron's logistical arrangements aim to ramp up supplies of equipment, provide better monitoring of and support to the care homes sector, and commandeer more transport to move COVID-19 patients from the worst-affected areas in eastern and central France to less pressurised facilities elsewhere. Only with these contingencies in hand did he feel able to spell out a timetable for what he calls 'deconfinement'. Still, there was no mistaking the conscious contrast with previous statements, which merely extended the lockdown period.
It also contrasted with the resistance of the UK Government to demands from Sir Keir Starmer and others to spell out the trigger criteria and the potential timescale for ending the British lockdown, which began after France's. Brits, said Starmer in a letter to Dominic Raab, had largely obeyed the lockdown rules but they 'need a sense of what comes next'. It was just this sense that Macron's broadcast last week deliberately set out to provide.
Yet UK ministers continue to insist that the sensible approach is to take policy one day at a time, though intense discussions are reliably reported behind the scenes to agree a basis for relaxing the constraints. When Michael Gove told Sky News
that the UK shouldn't be thinking yet about ending lockdown, we must assume he excluded such thinkers as himself. Meanwhile, one is tempted to the suspicion that ministers are not so much trying to conceal their exit strategy from the British people as trying to conceal their lack of one.
For French citizens, the really telling contrast is with Germany, where fatalities have been proportionately much lower than in other European nations, including France. This has been widely attributed to much more extensive testing, which has allowed the authorities to identify, trace and eradicate transmission chains, and isolate localised clusters. Germany, as of 15 April, had tested 16 people in every 1,000 of its population; France just 5.1; the UK 4.5. That same day, Angela Merkel announced a first cautious relaxation of restrictions.
Macron's plan is based on evidence that the infection rate in France is at last levelling out, as it has begun to do in neighbouring Italy and Spain, where the impact was worse. Even so, on the day of his broadcast, France's confirmed caseload was approaching 100,000 and the death toll was a shade shy of 15,000. Fatalities now total more than 20,000, but hospital admissions have fallen steadily.
So, details of what will happen after 11 May remain fluid and imprecise. 'When will we be able to return to a normal life?' the President asked rhetorically. 'I would love to be able to answer you but, to be frank, I must humbly tell you that we do not have definitive answers.... 11 May will be the start of a new phase. It will be progressive and the rules can be adapted according to our results.'
Schools and nurseries will be among the first establishments to re-open, while universities look set to remain closed – and exams suspended – until the autumn term. This decision has been challenged by the teaching unions, which suspect that their members are being put at undue risk so parents can get fractious kids out of the house. They point out that other gathering places for the young are to stay closed pro tem.
The rules confining people to their homes for 23 hours a day, and permitting only an hour's daily exercise within a one kilometre radius from home, are likely to be relaxed at an early stage, possibly in return for stricter mask-wearing. Vulnerable groups will remain in lockdown: the original obligatory inclusion in this category of all older people was hastily reversed, perhaps because someone remembered they have votes. But the places the French are accustomed to going out to – restaurants, cafes, cinemas, concert venues – remain shut beyond 11 May. The signs are that some smaller shops will reopen on a staggered basis – those that have survived the stasis. Denmark started with the hairdressers, and I don't doubt that would be welcomed here too.
Macron's confession to failures early in the crisis and his promise to draw the appropriate lessons betokens his awareness of the reckoning that must eventually come. He knows that hindsight, against a backdrop of economic wreckage, may be less kind about his government's performance than his traumatised country is at present. But he continues to manage that present pretty well. A pay bonus for healthcare staff, announced two days after his TV speech, was a shrewd postscript.
More importantly, he has found a tone that could convincingly blend the bad news of four more weeks of lockdown misery with the good news of an end date in sight: a grim but credible assessment of the continuing risks; and a reasoned plea for citizen solidarity to get France through the nightmare. He has achieved a sober authority that has kept a fissiparous France broadly acquiescent and compliant – thus far. In short, most people believe he is levelling with them.
Whitehall's fear is that setting out an exit strategy now would encourage people to shrug off the risk and prematurely drop their guard. To date, this has not been the French experience. One possible conclusion to draw is that when politicians treat the public as grown-ups, the public behave accordingly.