Emmanuel Macron is pretty grumpy. Credit: Julien Mattia/Anadolu Agency/ Getty

February 3, 2021   7 mins

In a single day last week the French President made a baseless public attack on a leading Covid vaccine and took a gamble against a third French lockdown — a gamble which could ruin his chances of re-election in 15 months’ time.

A couple of days earlier, Macron saw his most likely rival in next year’s election, the far-right leader Marine le Pen, creep to within 4 points of him (52 to 48%) in voting intentions in the two-candidate second-round in May next year.

Those polling figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Other opinion surveys are far more favourable to the French president. Long-distance election forecasts are as hazardous as long-range weather forecasts. Le Pen has her own problems.

All the same, the poll gave Macron a jolting reminder of the chain of unfortunate events which could confront him in the final full year of his mandate: a lingering or worsening pandemic; a stuttering French vaccination programme; and a darkly negative, even angry swing in popular opinion. Small wonder if the President’s mood has been a little unpredictable.

Speaking to a group of foreign correspondents at the ElysĂ©e Palace last Friday, Macron barged, Trump-like, into a blazing quarrel over reduced Covid vaccine supplies to the EU from the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. He suggested that there was “growing evidence” that AZ’s cheap-and-easy-to-use product was “quasi-ineffective” for people over the age of 65 and possibly for people over 60.

No such evidence exists. There is a shortage of formal evidence that the AZ-Oxford vaccine works on the over-65’s. There is no evidence that it does not work at all.

This was an unusual Macron mistake (if it was a mistake). He is verbose but he is usually careful with the facts. France is already the most vaccine-sceptic country in the world. Why would a French president cast doubt on a vaccine which will be one of three available to France in the next, critical months?

A few hours later, Macron chaired what may turn out to be the single most important meeting of his presidency. The outcome was decided by a presidential hunch which flew in the face of scientific advice.

A meeting of the Health Defence Council last Friday afternoon was expected to place France into a third Covid lockdown. The chief medical adviser and health minister had warned Macron privately (and other experts had warned him publicly) that the faster-moving “British variant” of Covid was starting to spread rapidly in France.

France was already suffering 20,000 new cases and 400 deaths a day — bad enough but less than most of its neighbours. The experts warned that, without a lockdown, the new variant would tip France into the kind of 1,000 deaths-a-day “epidemic-within-the-epidemic” suffered by Britain since Christmas.

Macron decided against the lockdown. He had, according to ElysĂ©e sources, prepared for the meeting by studying reams of data himself. He looked at not just the slowly rising cases but the “incidence rate” (which was stable) and reports on virus traces in waste water in the Paris sewers (falling).

In any case, the French — and especially the young French — were not in the mood for a third lockdown, Macron judged. Unless threatening figures became deadly facts, the French would resist another confinement. There would be widespread disobedience. Restaurants all over the country were already defying the partial lockdown rules — some secretly, others openly.

If there were another lockdown, the mental health problems of isolated students — something Macron had promised to address only a few days earlier — would become desperate. Large union demonstrations against Covid-related job losses are already threatened in March.

It was time, Macron decided, to gamble and defy the European trend towards third lockdowns. France could become “the country which didn’t have to lock down” when others did. “If we succeed, we will have saved ‘French exceptionalism’,” one senior ElysĂ©e official told the newspaper Le Figaro.

Instead of a new confinement, Macron decided to reinforce — or rather enforce properly for the first time — an existing 6pm to 6am curfew. All non-imperative travel from outside the EU would cease. Large non-food department stores and shopping centres would close. If the pandemic worsened, France could still lock down in the next couple of weeks.

There is something a little worrying about this account of such a vital meeting. The decision to avoid a lockdown was taken partly for good reasons (to spare the country’s shredded nerves) but also for dubious ones (to create a positive narrative that France could still succeed where others failed). The gravitational field of the presidential elections next April and May is, it appears, beginning to skew Macron’s personal and political compass.

Until now the President has prided himself on taking early and firm decisions on lockdowns (a first from mid-March to May and a second from late-October to mid-December). He boasted that these prompt decisions saved lives, compared to the delayed lockdown in Britain in March and the weak and poorly-enforced partial lockdown in Germany last autumn.

This time he decided to delay, partly for political reasons. The choice is all the stranger because Macron and his government have given so little attention to another potentially positive “national narrative” — France’s vaccine roll-out. After a glacial start (400 jabs in 4 days), the French programme took off reasonably well in January. France managed 1,486,493 vaccinations by the end of the month including 45,468 second injections. This was almost 50% ahead of the modest government target of 1,000,000 jabs.

Having caught up a little, France looks likely to fall off the pace again this month and drop behind Germany and Italy — never mind the extraordinary figures achieved by Britain. The government’s promise of a rapid acceleration in February (4,000,000 injections) has been mysteriously scaled back. The official plan is for 1,400,000 second jabs and 1,000,000 first time injections.

Yes, you say, but isn’t that the fault of the EU’s slow vaccine supply programme, which has been disrupted by production problems at the Pfizer and AstraZeneca factories (and also problems with the third supplier, Moderna)?

No, it isn’t. By the end of January France had received 2,600,000 (mostly Pfizer) jabs. It had used only 1,490,000 of them. It has 1,110,000 doses unused, in stock or unaccounted for.

The difficulties with supplies from Pfizer and AstraZeneca have now eased. France should receive a little less than 5,000,000 doses in February, adding to the 1,000,000 in stock. But France is planning only 2,400,000 injections this month.

Officially, the health ministry blames the shortfall on supplies from Big Pharma. Unofficially, France teems with stories of poor logistics, unambitious management and shortages of staff and needles. Professionals at the sharp end (literally) blame a cumbersome health service administration. Enthusiasm is sometimes lacking at all levels because staff (including 76% of care home workers, according to one survey) are infected by the widespread national allergy to vaccines.

Part of the French problem is legitimate. Britain’s 12-week delay between first and second injections has hugely boosted the UK headline figure for first jabs. France, like other EU governments, has dismissed that long gap as too risky. France gives the second jab after 28 days — and therefore needs to keep some doses back to fulfil that pledge.

In his meeting with foreign correspondents, Macron attacked Britain’s long delay between vaccine shots as “not very serious” and even dishonest. “We are lying to people when we tell them they’ve been vaccinated by getting one injection of a vaccine that consists of two injections,” Macron said.

He has a point. But the short French delay doesn’t fully explain the slow French roll-out. There were enough doses in France last month — and there will be more than enough this month — for a far more ambitious programme of both first and second jabs.

When the programme got off to a glacial start in late December, Macron made his anger known publicly. The rules were simplified. Urgency became briefly evident. Since then, urgency has abated but the President said little until last night.

He told TF1 TV news that France would “offer” a vaccine to all adults who wanted one before the end of the summer. He denied that that French vaccine programme was falling behind schedule. But his words were chosen carefully. “Offering a vaccine” is not the same as completing the required two injections.

Until now — despite many complaints and some failures — France’s record on coping with the Covid pandemic has been reasonably good. With the same size of populations, France has had 76,000 deaths, compared to 110,000 in the UK. Generous and early French furlough and economic support schemes — which provide the models for the British ones — helped keep the loss of GDP last year to 8.3% compared to 11.3% in Britain.

On vaccines, the UK is oceans ahead. Hence, I suspect Macron’s grumpy and inaccurate comments on the failings of the AZ vaccine last Friday. The president has been irked by Britain’s success with vaccines when he feels (correctly) that France has done better with almost everything else.

The French “failure” also extends to vaccine research. The Pasteur Institute abandoned its attempts to create a Covid vaccine last month. The French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi delayed its roll-out target until the end of this year after mistakes in testing. In both cases, this may have mostly been bad luck, rather than bad science. The rush to create Covid vaccines in months instead of years has created a global lottery of inspired versus less inspired guesses.

All the same, the French failures have been embarrassing for a President who argues that France and the EU must reconquer “strategic and economic sovereignty” from the United States and China. By comparison, the British government and British media have been able to vaunt the success of “our” vaccine. (“Ours” meaning that it was invented by an international team of scientists in Oxford and multiplied industrially by a British-Swedish company with a French boss).

So, at the meeting with foreign journalists, Macron was already in narrative-building mode. He wanted to play down and denigrate the British narrative (“fast vaccines trump all”). He wanted to prepare the ground for a “French narrative”, including the lockdown decision or “non-decision” that he took a few hours later.

The President evidently hopes to be able to sell in the election campaign in spring next year a three-part French success story. The three elements would be: resisting a third lockdown; making a plodding success of a “careful” and “honest” vax programme; and opening up French lives and the French economy by the autumn (when the elections will be six months away).

He could yet succeed.

Take Macron’s promise to  vaccinate  all adults, (52,000,000 people) by the end of August. Many adults will refuse. The willingness of the French to roll up their shirt sleeves is increasing but has reached only 56% (the equivalent of 29,000,000 adults).

Two jabs for all willing adults might require 58,000,000 injections or 276,000 a day. The planned jab rate in February is less than 100,000 a day.

Hope remains, however. France’s vast network of local pharmacies will be allowed to vaccinate people from later this month once — irony alert — the easy-to-store AstraZeneca vaccine becomes available. As AZ supplies increase in April and May, the French pharmacies say they will be able to vaccinate up to 500,000 a day. But that would require a massive effort by the French government to get the vaccines out to them.

Another grimmer narrative is also possible.

What if  Macron’s gamble last Friday fails? France is forced into lock down later this month. The vaccine programme remains laborious. Cases and deaths explode just as they begin to fall elsewhere.

Worse, the UK, for all its earlier Covid failures and crippling self-imposed Brexit trade barriers, succeeds while France fails. Macron’s presidential rivals (including Ms Le Pen) are presented with a counter narrative. Britain surfs on its rapid vaccine campaign to an early retreat of the pandemic; British lives and businesses open up; deaths in Britain fall. France’s do not. Macron’s election chances evaporate (not necessarily to Ms Le Pen’s ultimate gain).

It is small wonder that the President is in a tetchy mood.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.