Macron's 'Waterloo'? French president comes under attack for lockdown U-turn

Richard Lough and Tangi Salaün
·3-min read
French President Macron addresses country on COVID-19 situation

By Richard Lough and Tangi Salaün

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron's order for a third COVID-19 lockdown, having insisted for weeks on keeping the country open against the advice of scientists, has exposed him to criticism from rivals with an eye on next year's election.

The lockdown was needed to dampen a deadly third wave of infections that risked spiralling out of control while France ramped up its vaccination campaign, Macron told the nation in a televised address on Wednesday evening.

In locking the country down, the former investment banker abandoned a two-month gamble that he could steer France through this surge without the tough stay-at-home orders and school closures imposed in some other European nations this year.

It was Macron's "Waterloo", said far-right leader Marine Le Pen, an expression the French use to mean a definitive defeat.

"Unfortunately it is the French people who suffer the consequences of these delays, of his pride, and of his inconsistent decision-making, with a heavy price on their daily lives," tweeted Le Pen, who is expected to be Macron's main challenger in 2022.

Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers on Thursday before they took a symbolic vote on the lockdown that the government strived to strike a balance between acting neither too early, nor too late.

"These measures seem to us essential. Essential to allowing our country to get through what we hope will be this last phase (of the crisis)," he said.

The president has said he was right to keep France open and shield the economy from another shutdown, even as hospitals began buckling under the strain. "I have no mea culpa to make, no regrets," Macron said just a week ago.

Opponents and parts of the public have accused Macron with behaving like a monarch who surrounds himself with a loyal inner court and listens to few others since he entered the Elysee Palace in 2017.

Macron aides say he has consulted widely during the pandemic but that the final decision in France's Fifth Republic lies with the president.

His perceived arrogance, which energised months of anti-government "Yellow Vest" protests earlier in his presidency, may prove to be his soft underbelly ahead of next year's vote.

"SUN KING"

Macron gambled in January that a curfew and the closure of restaurants and bars could stem infections. But by early March, the virus was running rampant as a more contagious variant took hold and the vaccine rollout only spluttered into life.

On Wednesday night, Macron acknowledged some mistakes had been made. "All that is true. But I know one thing: we’ve held on, we’ve learned and at each point we have improved.”

Underlining Macron’s vulnerability, a survey this month showed he would win a runoff against Le Pen by only a few points. However, an opinion poll published shortly before Macron’s address showed 36% of respondents trusted the president, way above both his predecessors a year out from the vote.

Lawmakers summoned to parliament for the vote were unimpressed. Several parties boycotted it.

Opponents from both the left and right accused the president of turning a deaf ear to his advisers, running roughshod over parliament and failing to apologise for his mistakes.

"This lockdown, which you won't even call by its name, is a symbol of the arrogance with which the president and his government has wrapped itself up in," Damien Abbad, from the main opposition conservative party, told the lower house.

Macron's government has said decisions were taken in response to the pandemic's evolution. But at times he has kept even his ministers guessing on his plans, officials close to the presidency have said..

Communist Party lawmaker Andre Chassaigne likened his style of rule to that of Louis XIV, France's 17th century monarch known as the Sun King and who proclaimed absolute power.

"The worsening of the health crisis was predictable," Chassaigne told lawmakers. "The Sun King's leap of faith was not enough to break the infection curve."

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Tangi Salaun; Editing by Alison Williams)