April 4, 2021 11:13:19 am
At the Montparnasse train station in Paris, the contrast could not have been sharper.
About a year ago, faced with the first national lockdown against a raging coronavirus epidemic, Parisians desperately jammed into trains in an exodus that turned Montparnasse into a place of fear and anxiety, and the capital into a ghost town.
But Friday morning, a day before the start of the third national lockdown, foot traffic was relatively light inside Montparnasse station and others in Paris. The mood was one of deep fatigue before restrictions that once again will severely limit travel across France, confine people’s movements in their communities and shut down schools.
“There is a bit of weariness,” said Muriel Sallandre, who was catching a train to visit her parents in western France but was planning to return to Paris in a few days. “The absence of perspective, being dependent on the government’s messages — all that is ultimately a little depressing.”
Many French rushed to buy train tickets immediately after the announcement of a new lockdown Wednesday evening. So the capital’s stations will likely get more crowded over the weekend as travelers planning to spend the latest lockdown outside Paris mix with those traveling to visit relatives for Easter. Some Parisians also left the capital after restrictions were imposed in the capital region a couple of weeks ago.
But nothing like last year’s exodus was expected, as panic has mostly given way to resignation. Even though President Emmanuel Macron pledged that this would be France’s last national lockdown before life returns to normal, there was no clear light at the end of the tunnel: Infections are soaring; France’s total deaths from the epidemic is nearing 100,000; and, like in the rest of the European Union, progress on the vaccination campaign remains painfully slow.
“The way things are going, I feel that, in a month, we will be put under an even stricter lockdown,” said Marie-Yvonne Bougrel, 53, adding she did not “feel that the measures implemented are really effective.”
Like many others in the train station, Bougrel said she was disappointed by the slow vaccine rollout that has plagued France since late December, adding that she knew only one person who had been vaccinated.
In a nationally televised address watched live Wednesday by about half of France’s population of 67 million, Macron announced yet another national lockdown after months of resisting advice from public health researchers and pressure from political rivals. Macron had bet unsuccessfully that, despite rising infections and new powerful variants, a national lockdown could be avoided if enough people got vaccinated at a steady pace.
But logistical and other homegrown problems compounded the difficulties of a campaign that was dependent on vaccines that did not materialize as expected, especially from British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which ran into production shortages and said its contracts required it to fulfill orders to Britain first.
Its vaccine, which France and other European countries bet heavily on to lead them out of the pandemic, has also been plagued by worries about rare but sometimes fatal side effects that led them briefly to suspend its use. Some nations are still not giving it out or are restricting who gets it.
Among the French, the mood has grown darker as other nations, especially Britain and the United States, have bounced back from a disastrous handling of the epidemic with successful inoculation campaigns. Just 13% of France’s population has had at least one vaccine shot, compared to 47% of Britons and 30% of Americans.
At the train station, Brigitte Bidaut, a retired pharmacist, said she is “appalled by what is going on in France.”
“The United States was in a complete mess, and now they are getting 2 million vaccinations a day. The British were in a complete mess, and now they are better off,” she said. “Well, what can we do? We don’t have any doses. Even with four weeks of a lockdown, I still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
A poll released Thursday showed that a majority of French people were skeptical of the new lockdown’s ultimate effects. In findings that reflected the population’s fatigue, 70% of French respondents said they approved of the new national lockdown, but 46% said that they planned to flout the measures.
Among young people, hit hard by a crisis that has opened psychological wounds and left them in deep economic uncertainty, two-thirds of those surveyed said they would break the new rules.
In a country that is acutely sensitive to its rank in the global pecking order, France’s frequent mishandling of the epidemic and subsequent vaccination campaign has led to widespread hand-wringing. Last year, France found itself dependent on China and other nations for the masks, test kits and other basic tools to fight the outbreak.
This time, the country finds itself entirely dependent on outside help for its vaccines — a crushing blow to the nation that produced Louis Pasteur and enjoys a long history of medical breakthroughs.
Antoine Levy, a French economist and doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that France invested heavily in enforcing its lockdowns, putting millions of workers on paid furloughs and gradually tightening restrictions on people’s movements but very little in developing vaccines.
“There has been very little investment in what seems to be the only way out of the crisis, while accepting huge sacrifices in terms of public freedom and in the economy for a year,” he said.
As countries keep comparing themselves in their initial handling of the outbreak, their vaccine campaigns and their economic recovery plans, the French “felt that we failed a little on all fronts,” Levy said.
The third national lockdown, Levy said, gives the impression that France is again back to the first lockdown of March 2020 and “that nothing has changed.”
“This is what creates this feeling of decline,” he said.
France, others have pointed out, is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council where a vaccine has not been developed. While the United States and Britain have recovered some of the damage to their reputations thanks to their vaccines, and as China and Russia have deployed their own vaccines in their quest for global influence, France has been relegated to the position of bystander.
In late January, the Pasteur Institute announced that it would abandon research on its vaccine candidate after disappointing trial results, just a month after Sanofi, France’s biggest pharmaceutical company, said that its own vaccine was unlikely to be ready before the end of 2021, at best.
“It’s a sign of decline of the country, and this decline is unacceptable,” François Bayrou, recently named commissioner for long-term government planning by Macron, said in a radio interview in January.
The problems with the vaccines have left many French of all age groups deeply skeptical and pessimistic.
“I’m still waiting to see, but I think that believing in a return to normal is an illusion,” said Victor Cormier, 22, a student.
Andrée Girard, 61, a retiree, said she had been unable to book an appointment to get vaccinated. She did not believe the new restrictions would curb the epidemic for good and feared that France was stuck in a “stop and go” pattern for the foreseeable future.
Referring to Macron’s pledge in his Wednesday announcement that France would start reopening in mid-May, Girard said, “I’m skeptical about a light at the end of the tunnel. They’ve been making promises for the past year that haven’t been kept. I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t know if we’ll get back our old life.”
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