From St Tropez to La Rochelle to Deauville, there is a familiar sight this summer in many of France’s most popular coastal resorts. A year after the wearing of masks outside was made mandatory they are back, and French and foreign sunseekers are forced to muzzle under a broiling sun.
It was only a month ago that the government relaxed the rule on the wearing of masks outdoors, but that was before a rise in cases caused by the Delta variant. Most of the infected are the young and unvaccinated, hospitalisations are stable and deaths remain minimal: there were 11 in the last 24 hours, compared to ten last Saturday.
These facts were overlooked by the health minister, Olivier Véran, who earlier this week announced in Hancockesque tones that France is in the grip of a ‘grave’ fourth wave. Consequently many departments – mostly those popular with holidaymakers – have reintroduced the mask requirement and some have also reimposed curfews for bars and restaurants.
This contradicts many renowned doctors and epidemiologists who have spent the last year explaining that the wearing of a mask outside is pointless. As one doctor wrote in an op-ed for Le Figaro at the start of this month, people should actually be encouraged to breathe in the bracing air of the countryside and seaside after those long winter months cooped up in small apartments. To muzzle the populace outside was, he said, ‘absurd and infantile’.
But what would one expect from President Macron? From the start of the Covid crisis he has treated his people like children, going so far as to make them complete a form every time they left the house to walk the dog or buy a baguette.
But Macron has acted this way from the moment he took office in May 2017. The President is like the overbearing stepfather who has inherited a brood he neither likes nor understands.
That much was evident in the tone of his address to the nation on July 12, when he scolded millions of people for their reluctance to be vaccinated – ignoring the fact that his own scepticism of the AstraZeneca vaccine was a significant factor in reducing uptake – and warned that unless they bucked up there would be no outings to adventure parks or the cinema for the foreseeable future. Essentially Macron threatened to ground France because the country could no longer be trusted.
Stepdad Macron has complained about the bolshy behaviour of his compatriots on several previous occasions. In 2017 he described them as slackers, then mocked them as ‘Gauls, resistant to change’, and in 2018 he told a young unemployed gardener looking for work in his sector to get off his backside, cross the street and get a job in a cafe or restaurant.
This infantalisation of France hasn’t gone unnoticed. The disrespect has always been mutual but among the people the resentment and contempt for their parental president has increased in the last 18 months. Last month’s record abstention in the regional election was a collective sulk by the electorate.
If the reports are to be believed, Boris Johnson’s gut instinct when Covid struck was to trust Britons to use their common sense; he was talked out of it by his advisors and the doom-mongers on Sage, but earlier this month the Prime Minister partially relented and lifted many of the UK’s Covid restrictions, urging the public to take ‘personal responsibility’.
Macron would never dream of treating the French like grown-ups. They are children to be scolded, controlled, belittled and disciplined. This infantilisation of France has become dangerous. The President is open in his disdain for his people, and they – as they demonstrated in their placards and chants during last Saturday’s nationwide protests, and before that during the yellow vest movement – have a burning hatred of their president.
A handful of vaccination centres have been attacked recently and there were sporadic outbreaks of violence at some of the many demonstrations that took place across France on Saturday. I attended one of the three rallies held in Paris. The atmosphere here was calm and good-natured, as it had been the previous weekend. On that occasion, as I wrote on Monday, ‘Liberty’ was the theme. This time ‘Resistance’ was the chant, along with a call to boycott all cinemas, restaurants and other venues where a Covid Passport is demanded. Cinemas are alarmed; since the Passport was introduced on Wednesday attendance has plummeted by 70 per cent.
Macron flew to Tokyo at the end of last week to enjoy some Olympic sport. He’ll return to a France that is fractious and rebellious. At this stage he seems determined to stand his ground against people he regards as tiresomely wilful; they are equally resolute. It will be a long, hot summer in France and tempers are likely to fray under the summer sun. Expect insults, tantrums and worse. These protestors are determined to be seen and heard.
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