Like other national leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron is fighting to save lives and prevent an economic depression. But he is also battling for the survival of his political vision | Thibaud Moritz/Abaca Press via Belga
PARIS — Emmanuel Macron has embraced the concept of waging war on the coronavirus like no other European leader and he has made the Green Salon of the Elysée palace his command center.
In a call from the salon on March 24, Macron told European Council President Charles Michel he is fighting a “kinetic war ” — one that is constantly in motion, requiring quick and decisive action with little time for second-guessing.
As Macron has directed operations from his first-floor war room, with its light-green and golden paneling, a picture has emerged of his strategy and priorities that illuminates not just the French presidents approach to the pandemic but also the challenges now faced by democratic leaders across Europe and around the world.
Macron takes part in a video conference with the World Health Organization from his office at the Elysée Palace on April 8 | Pool photo by Ludovic Marin via AFP
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 worlds leading scientists are still struggling to fully understand.
This account of Macrons handling of the coronavirus crisis so far, based on interviews with seven senior officials involved in Frances 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 Frances 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.
A family in Lille, France, watches as Macron addresses the nation on March 12 | Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images
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 states 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 didnt 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.
Nurses check on COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit of the Peupliers hospital in Paris | Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images
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.
“Were 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 were 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 isnt 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 dont reject Europe as an entity that wasnt 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 presidents 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 presidents 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.
Emergency room personnel pose for portraits at the Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris on April 3 | Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images
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 governments 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 governments 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.
Macron tours a military field hospital outside the Emile Muller hospital in Mulhouse, France | Pool photo by Mathieu Cugnot/AFP via Getty Images
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 partys 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 Macrons 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 administrations 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 Macrons office stressed the importance of communications in their strategy. “Communication is one of the lifebloods of the war,” said the adviser. “Because its 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.
Macron speaks with health care workers while touring a medical center in Pantin, France, on April 7 | Pool photo by Gonzalo Fuentes via AFP
“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 everyones 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 doesnt 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 governments case against a generalized wearing of masks. If people couldnt be tested to know whether they had the virus, wasnt 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.
A lone passenger — wearing a protective mask — on a train arriving in Paris on March 17, a day after Macrons stay-at-home order | Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images
“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 werent purely about public health. They were also political.
Macron meets with social workers and volunteers assisting the elderly in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve on April 7 | Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP via Getty Images
Macrons opponents, above all Les Républicains (LR), had declared that the president would be staging a “coup détat” if he canceled the elections. Macrons 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 cant 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 Macrons only problem around that time. On election day, Macrons wife Brigitte took a walk along the Seine river and was reportedly taken aback by the number of people out and about, despite Philippes instructions the day before to limit movements to essential errands. Yet Brigitte Macrons own stroll also flouted the governments guidelines.
Escalators sit empty and unused at the Châtelet-Les Halles metro station in Paris on April 8 | Stephane de Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images