PARIS – France’s president says he has no reason to be sorry about refusing to impose a third national lockdown earlier this year, even though surging coronavirus infections are straining his country's hospitals and more than 1,000 people with the virus are dying every week.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government has stressed the importance of keeping children in school and businesses afloat as the pandemic stretches into a second year. Families of French COVID-19 victims say, however, that Macron has turned a blind eye to their suffering.
“We were right not to implement a lockdown in France at the end of January because we didn’t have the explosion of cases that every model predicted,” Macron said late Thursday at the end of a European Union summit. “There won’t be a mea culpa from me. I don’t have remorse and won’t acknowledge failure.”
For months, France has championed a “third way” between confinement and freedom, including a nationwide curfew and closing restaurants, museums, cinemas, gyms, many shopping malls and some other businesses. The measures kept France's infection rate steady for a while, but it's been rising markedly again this month.
France has recorded the fourth-highest number of confirmed virus cases and one of the highest pandemic death tolls with 93,378 lives lost. Intensive care units are again at or beyond capacity in Paris and several other regions because of a flood of critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Many medical workers have urged the French government for weeks to impose stronger restrictions in response to the more contagious virus variant first identified in Britain, which now is dominant form of the virus in France.
“A zero-virus situation doesn’t exist, and that’s true for every country in Europe. We’re not an island, and even the islands who’d protected themselves sometimes saw the virus come back,” Macron said. “But we considered that with the curfew and the measures we had, we could cope.”
Relatives of people with COVID-19 who died took to social networks to express their anger at Macron's comments.
“I started to listen to him, and it started to irritate me and I had to change the channel," said Lionel Petitpas, whose wife, Joelle, died last year.
“It’s insane. Macron, the prime minister, they always think they are making the right decision. As a citizen, I state that no, because we are finding ourselves in the exact same situation as a year ago,” Petitpas, who started an association to allow families to mourn virus victims together, told The Associated Press.
He acknowledged the challenges facing those who have lost jobs and livelihoods to the pandemic. But he asked, “What is the point of an economy if there is no one healthy enough left to run it?”
While the government is determined to avoid a new nationwide lockdown, Macron said that tougher measures may be announced in the coming days. Last week, the government closed non-essential stores and imposed travel restrictions for residents of Paris and several other regions, but some doctors fear that won’t be enough to slow the new outbreak.
“We are at 100% occupation rate for nearly a month. We have stretched our capacities to the maximum,” Dr. Mohamed El Hadi Djerad of the Pierre Beregovoy de Nevers Hospital in Burgundy told local broadcaster France-3. “We are in a crisis situation.”
The infection rate in the Burgundy region doubled in two weeks.