Since the first coronavirus case was detected in France on January 24, Macron and his team have been in a constant race with time, outpaced and outflanked at every turn, having to make critical decisions with incomplete and constantly evolving data about a virus the world’s leading scientists are still struggling to fully understand.
This account of Macron’s handling of the coronavirus crisis so far, based on interviews with seven senior officials involved in France’s domestic and international response, reveals a president trying to juggle three different roles — as commander, communicator and multilateralist-in-chief.
The stakes are particularly high for the 42-year-old, who had never held elected office before he became French president less than three years ago.
Like other national leaders, Macron is fighting to save lives and prevent an economic depression. But he is also battling for the survival of his political vision, built on European integration and international cooperation. That has been called into question by deep divisions within the EU, and the go-it-alone attitude of many countries.
In France’s uniquely centralized presidential system, the buck unquestionably stops with Macron. He has addressed the nation three times since the crisis began, drawing a record television audience of 35 million for his first speech. In his most forceful address, he repeatedly told the French people they were “at war.” He will address them again on Monday evening, to discuss the next phase of the fight.
Yet while Macron has taken the role of commanding general, he has also cultivated more of a team approach to leadership than at other times in his presidency.
In their war so far, Macron and his troops have already suffered significant reverses. They have been accused of underplaying the usefulness of face masks and coronavirus tests because they knew France did not possess enough of either.
Macron also pressed ahead with holding a first round of local elections in mid-March before having to cancel the second round as social distancing measures became stricter. And his considerable skills as a communicator have sometimes deserted him, leading to confusion.
But the president has so far won high marks from the French public for his leadership in the crisis — even though the state’s overall handling of the pandemic is viewed more critically. His approval ratings shot up to their highest level in two years, even as a majority of French people say they think the government hid information and didn’t communicate clearly.
Yet, despite nearly 9,000 coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals and almost 5,000 in care homes, France has succeeded in slowing the daily rise in fatalities and generally keeping critical care admissions to levels its hospitals can manage.
Its generous social welfare system and a well-established partial work scheme has also helped curb some of the economic hardship.
Even as they fight the virus, Macron and his team are also trying to think ahead to what comes next.
“We’re quite obsessed with what happens after the crisis, including on the European level. No one knows what the day after will look like,” said a senior Elysée official. “But we’re not going to go back to the way things were, that would be surreal.”
On Europe, Macron sees both danger and opportunity. The danger is that the European Union itself could collapse, particularly if countries hardest hit by the crisis such as Italy and Spain do not feel the EU has done enough to help them.
“This solidarity issue isn’t a gimmick, it is the condition of the survival of the European project in the aftermath,” the senior official said.
But Macron also sees an opportunity to push through changes at the European level — from closer economic integration to greater EU powers on health policy.
“He is very focused on making sure that the French people don’t reject Europe as an entity that wasn’t able to protect them and the Europeans,” said Stéphane Séjourné, a former key aide to Macron who is now a member of the European Parliament for the president’s party and remains close to him. “We need proof that the EU is useful and it can be useful on the sanitary response and the economic recovery afterward.”
The French president’s approach to the crisis rests on four pillars: building and leading his key team, communicating, decision-making and international cooperation.
n the Green Salon, flanked by his most trusted aides around a boardroom table, Macron has spent the better part of the past five weeks in coronavirus video calls.
Nearly every week since the first deaths were recorded, he has also headed out to inspect his frontlines: at hospitals, research centers, crisis cells, a nursing home and a center for homeless people.
He has solemnly called for national unity in televised addresses, and sought to place himself above the fray, only answering a handful of questions from journalists.
But Macron is also sharing the spotlight more than in previous crises, such as the Yellow Jackets anti-government protests. He has surrounded himself with four lieutenants who have taken on key responsibilities and high-profile public roles — which may also mean less blame is attached to him personally if things go wrong.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, his beard growing ever grayer, has spent hours on television fielding questions from viewers and breaking down the practicalities of the government’s guidelines during lockdown.
He has also played a central role in arbitrating between the recommendations of the two inter-ministerial cells set up to manage the crisis: one at the health ministry in a room called CORRUSS, and the traditional crisis cell at the interior ministry, known for handling terror attacks. Both meet daily and incorporate recommendations from other ministries.
Director-General for Health Jérôme Salomon has become the government’s leading expert voice, updating the public daily in televised press conferences on the number of confirmed cases and deaths.
“He will be the François Molins of health,” Macron told his aides in late January, according to one of them, drawing a comparison with the former Paris prosecutor seen as a reassuring hand on the tiller as the country suffered a wave of terrorist attacks between 2015 and 2017.
Health Minister Olivier Véran is another key member of the team, thrust into the role at short notice. In a puzzling move, Macron allowed then-Health Minister Agnès Buzyn to resign and take on an uphill (and ultimately unsuccessful) run for Paris mayor after his party’s original candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, had to quit over a sexting scandal.
Véran, a neurologist-turned member of parliament, took over on February 16, just a week before the first coronavirus-related death in France.
He quickly became a household name for his simple explanation of the strategy of flattening the pandemic curve to avoid overwhelming the health care system, drawing the curve live on television.
Both Salomon and Véran had advised Macron’s health task force during his presidential campaign. But the final member of the team was once a member of a rival camp. Like Prime Minister Philippe, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was a senior member of conservative party Les Républicains but is now charged with crafting the Macron administration’s response to what is expected to be the worst downturn since World War II.
Le Maire has also been leading the economic charge internationally, proposing strategies and seeking to broker deals at the EU, G7 and G20 levels.
ike many leaders faced with widespread distrust of the political elite, Macron has stressed he is following the advice of scientists in the decisions he makes during the crisis. He set up a scientific council to advise him and the government on the coronavirus.
“One principle guides us to define our actions,” Macron said on March 12 in the first of his three televised speeches on the coronavirus. “Trust in science. Listening to those who know.”
An adviser in Macron’s office stressed the importance of communications in their strategy. “Communication is one of the lifebloods of the war,” said the adviser. “Because it’s part of establishing trust. Without trust, everything you do has no value.”
But on issues such as the use of masks and testing, authorities have not always leveled with the population — even when the shortages they faced were due in large part to decisions made by previous governments.
“We recommend that sick people wear masks and that transport workers and caregivers wear protective equipment,” Salomon said in his daily press conference on January 27. That day, he also said that it was appropriate to “systematically test” any person with symptoms of the coronavirus.
But over the weeks that followed, as authorities realized their strategic reserve of masks would not be sufficient to cover everyone’s needs, and that they did not have enough kits to systematically test the population, officials played down the importance of both for anyone but patients and health care workers.
In reality, France was woefully lacking the ability to test, because, unlike Germany, it doesn’t produce kits locally, but relies on China for their main components, according to Jean-Francois Delfraissy, president of the scientific council advising authorities.
The lack of testing also weakened the government’s case against a generalized wearing of masks. If people couldn’t be tested to know whether they had the virus, wasn’t it safer to wear a mask to lower the risk of spreading it? Complaints from medical staff and the public began to mount.
It was only on March 19 that Véran admitted in response to a question in parliament that the government had a lower-than-expected stockpile of personal protective equipment.
“It was decided in 2011 and 2013 that there was no longer a need to keep massive stocks of masks, considering that factories could deliver quite quickly, namely in China,” he said, urging that respirators and surgical masks be used with “utmost parsimony.”
By then, the government was increasing domestic mask production as it waited for the resumption of deliveries from China, amid a global race to secure supplies.
Two days later, Véran was ushering in a slow change in the official strategy, saying the “testing doctrine should evolve,” after the World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries should “test, test, test.”
And two weeks later, the message on masks shifted too. “We encourage members of the public, who would like to, to wear … alternative masks that are being produced,” Salomon said.
The waters were further muddied this week when Véran balked at endorsing a general recommendation to wear masks.
Three-quarters of the French think the government lied to them about masks, according to a poll published on April 9.
ince coming to office, Macron has cultivated a reputation for being bold and blunt. But he shied away from that template on two key measures, which dented his reputation.
His decision not to postpone local elections baffled many observers. The first round went ahead on Sunday, March 15, three days after he declared the country was “facing the worst sanitary crisis in a century” and ordered schools and kindergartens shut, and a day after Philippe ordered non-essential businesses to close down.
Macron justified his decision on the basis of scientific advice that going to the polls carried no greater risk than running errands — as long as people practiced social distancing and used hand gels available at the polling station.
Commentators warned that even if the first round could go ahead, there was a strong chance the second would have to be canceled as lockdown measures were tightened. Macron went ahead anyway.
Officials close to him later admitted that his calculations weren’t purely about public health. They were also political.
Macron’s opponents, above all Les Républicains (LR), had declared that the president would be staging a “coup d’état” if he canceled the elections. Macron’s La République en Marche party was trailing in the polls and projected to come in fourth nationwide.
Having faced the Yellow Jackets protests and, more recently, major public transport strikes over pension reform, Macron did not want to be painted as anti-democratic by canceling the election.
Officials say doubts about the election persisted even after Macron announced on Thursday March 12 that they would go ahead. But it was too late to change course.
“On the Saturday [March 14], the prime minister knew there would be issues related to the second round of the election but you can’t cancel on Saturday elections being held the next day,” a government official said. The official said it would have been particularly hard to postpone when scientists had given the green light.
The elections went ahead the following day, and LREM performed as badly as expected, amid a historic low turnout of 45.5 percent.
And that was not Macron’s only problem around that time. On election day, Macron’s wife Brigitte took a walk along the Seine river and was reportedly taken aback by the number of people out and about, despite Philippe’s instructions the day before to limit movements to essential errands. Yet Brigitte Macron’s own stroll also flouted the government’s guidelines.
The following day, Macron announced a nationwide lockdown in his second address to the nation. But he avoided using the word “confinement,” which had been widely expected. That left people confused about if and when they could leave their homes. The prime minister and interior minister had to clarify the rules in the days that followed.
Officials said Macron had been trying to strike a balance in his speech. “It was a complex message about needing to confine but also needing to keep the economic engine going,” the adviser in his office said days later.
However, more than many world leaders, Macron has been blunt about how little is known about the virus and about the need to find the right balance with economic imperatives, even if the pandemic subsides.
“We don’t know how many waves we’re going to have and how the virus is going to behave and how we will absorb it,” he said on a visit to the Pasteur Institute in Paris on March 19.
“We are living through a profoundly new period that forces us to ask ourselves questions we haven’t asked ourselves [about things] like supply and production chains,” Macron said.
“We are going to change our habits, but everything can’t stop … we must take the time to organize ourselves, and see what is adaptable.”
n his suite in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on January 22, Macron called his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, an hour before kicking off an official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He called to express his best wishes for the Chinese New Year and also to discuss the coronavirus outbreak that China was experiencing.
It was his first of many international conversations about the virus. In the following month and a half, Macron has taken part in a veritable blitz of videoconferences aimed at shepherding a global response to the pandemic, even as the United States has abdicated its leading role in world affairs.
Macron organized an extraordinary G7 leaders’ videoconference, unusually taking the initiative even though the U.S. holds the rotating presidency of the group. And he was a driving force behind holding a first videoconference of EU leaders on the crisis on March 10.
He is finalizing a support package for Africa, which he has been building in coordination with 10 African leaders. And France is also pushing for a summit among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Yet these efforts have borne limited fruit so far. Despite Macron’s push to cultivate good relations between the EU and China, including by sending aid to Beijing after the virus broke out, China has launched a propaganda offensive targeted at the EU, while member countries failed to highlight the help they were giving each other, even belatedly.
“The EU sent 56 tons of material to China because it seemed to us that our European duty was to support a world power going through an epidemic,” French Secretary of State for European Affairs Amélie de Montchalin told POLITICO.
In that shipment on February 19, France sent China, the world’s mask factory, 17 tons of medical equipment, including 560,000 surgical masks, from its limited strategic stock.
“They will remember it when the time comes,” Macron told his advisers at the time, according to one of them.
China requested the European aid be kept low-profile to save face, according to two European diplomatic officials. But Beijing has failed to return the favor. Instead, it has been showcasing deliveries of supplies to Italy and other European countries, even though much of the equipment has later been reported to be defective.
The Chinese embassy in France even wrote a Twitter thread ridiculing the pandemic response in democratic countries.
Beijing seems to want to have it both ways. In a letter dated March 19, seen by POLITICO, in which Xi requested a call from Macron, he said France had taken “a series of strong measures to counter COVID-19 that, I am convinced, will give positive results.”
And yet, Macron’s camp is persisting in its push to broker international cooperation, partly out of pragmatism.
France still depends on China for much of its mask and test needs. Until it can build up national and European production capacity and radically reduce its dependence on imports of these items, as Macron urged recently, Paris has to “secure production chains” and conduct “very pragmatic cooperation,” according to a second senior Elysée adviser.
“We need to use international cooperation for what it is and what it is right now is operational necessity,” the adviser said.
On the European stage, Macron and his team have sought to play a central role, urging close cooperation across the Continent after countries shut borders, imposed export bans and took other unilateral measures as the pandemic hit.
“There is a concrete European solidarity that is materializing,” said de Montchalin. “Where does Europe exist? It’s when Luxembourg and Switzerland call and ask if I can guarantee that French nurses will keep working in their hospitals, and I say ‘of course, more than 50 percent of your nurses are French, it makes no sense not to, especially in this context.’ This creates new forms of solidarity and dialogue.”
But Macron’s own government has not always played the role of the exemplary European. On March 3, France requisitioned national mask production, depriving Italy, Sweden and Spain of some of their mask supply just as the epidemic was surging.
Macron personally intervened on April 3 to order the release of 2 million masks bought by a Swedish company that had been held up for a month, according to an official.
On the crucial question of the European economic response to the fallout from the coronavirus, Macron’s government has sought to be a bridge-builder in an increasingly fraught dispute between north and south, which has reopened deep wounds from the eurozone debt crisis of a decade ago.
Macron signed a letter along with leaders of eight other countries, including Italy and Spain, urging a more collective economic response by the EU and containing a specific reference to common debt instruments, which Germany, the Netherlands and others oppose.
However, the letter did not use the phrase “corona bonds” — ruled out by northern countries. At a meeting of eurozone finance ministers earlier this week, France’s Le Maire and his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, coordinated their positions.
And when the war is over, Macron’s camp wants to win the peace, revamping the EU to increase financial solidarity, add more powers on health policy and get more money flowing directly into the bloc’s budget.
“We’ll have to use this crisis to give ourselves the tools to act in a stronger and quicker way in the next crisis,” said MEP Séjourné.