France is already mourning one former head of state in this pandemic: the nonagenarian Giscard d’Estaing died recently of Covid. Now Emmanuel Macron has the coronavirus. Unlike the feeding frenzy that greeted the news that Donald Trump had tested positive, the illness of the French President has occasioned little adverse comment and certainly no Schadenfreude. He will, after all, only turn 43 next week and seems in excellent health. He apparently has only mild symptoms and is carrying on working in isolation.
Instead, the French media has given prominence to the sympathy expressed by other leaders. Macron might have mixed feelings about the message from Vladimir Putin, who still denies poisoning Alexei Navalny, claiming that if the FSB had really targeted his rival (who is still recovering in German exile) “they would have finished the job”. For such a sinister figure to wish one “good health for many years to come” must feel quite macabre.
However certain he is to survive, however, there are serious questions to be asked about President Macron’s conduct in the week leading up to his diagnosis. Since the European Council meeting in Brussels last week, where he is likely to have contracted the virus, Macron has lunched with the Presidents of the European Commission and Parliament as well as the Prime Ministers of Spain and Portugal. He is reported to have greeted the men with hugs. All are now self-isolating, apart from Ursula von der Leyen, who presumably kept her distance from the tactile Frenchman. His wife Brigitte has tested negative, which must be a relief to her husband: Mme Macron is 67. Angela Merkel, who met Macron at the summit, has also tested negative: she is 66. Angel Gurria, the head of the OECD, is in self-isolation after attending the lunch at the Élysée: he is 70. Other European politicians and officials who have encountered Macron are also taking similar precautions.
Emmanuel Macron, then, is the champion super-spreader of Europe. He is open to two charges: irresponsibility and hypocrisy. Politically, the second is probably more serious than the first. It is nothing short of extraordinary that in the midst of the second wave of the Covid pandemic, the French President goes around hugging, shaking hands and (though this has not been admitted) almost certainly kissing other European leaders. Several of those with whom he has been in close proximity, if not physical contact, are more than 60 years old and therefore potentially vulnerable.
What ought to make Macron’s behaviour even more unacceptable, however, is the fact that he has paraded himself as an example for his compatriots to follow. In public, he is never seen without a mask. In private, it is evidently another story. Macron has been exposed as a man who talks the talk but does not walk the walk. His hypocrisy is compounded by his arrogance: he is only self-isolating for a week, presumably so that he can enjoy Christmas with his family and friends. France has only just emerged from lockdown, but cases are rising fast: yesterday there were 18,254. Deaths will pass the 60,000 mark this weekend. Many French people may feel that this is no time for their President to set such a lamentable example.
Will there be much, or any, criticism of Macron in the French press? Almost certainly not: the President of the Republic is normally surrounded by a nimbus of pomp and circumstance that would make any monarch envious. Outside the Parisian political bubble, though, Macron’s cavalier conduct will have been noted. One day he will pay a price for this and other manifestations of folie de grandeur.
Here in Britain, both the infection and the behaviour of the French President will pass largely without comment. The pundits who lavished thousands of words on the misdemeanours of Dominic Cummings (a mere adviser) will turn a blind eye to the far more culpable conduct of our nearest neighbour’s head of state. Even the early stages of the pandemic, politicians here were warned that, by travelling between Westminster and their constituencies, they could become super-spreaders. Paris evidently never got the message.
One final point: if Boris Johnson were found to have swanned around Europe spreading coronavirus far and wide, he would quite possibly have been drummed out of office. When the British Prime Minister was reprimanded by Dr von der Leyen for not replacing his mask quickly enough, he responded with alacrity: “I see you run a tight ship here, Ursula.” Not tight enough, it would seem. How glad Boris must be that he did not attend the ill-starred summit at the Berlaymont. Last week, the European Commission headquarters became the Continent’s Coronavirus Central.
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