By Noemie Bisserbe and Stacy Meichtry 

PARIS -- President Emmanuel Macron charted a painstaking exit from France's coronavirus lockdown on Tuesday amid a tug of war inside his cabinet over how quickly to reopen the economy.

On one side stood Mr. Macron's prime minister and a panoply of health authorities and epidemiologists pulling for lockdown measures to remain in place. On the other lies Mr. Macron's economy minister, backed by an army of retailers, who considers the Christmas-shopping season a make-or-break moment.

On Tuesday, Mr. Macron weighed in with an address on national TV that sought to strike a balance between the two sides. Starting Saturday, shops can reopen under strict social-distancing rules, Mr. Macron said. If the number of new daily infections falls below 5,000, he added, the government will lift the lockdown on Dec. 15, replacing it with a 9 p.m. curfew. Christmas and New Year's Eve will be an exception. Bars and restaurants will remain closed until at least Jan. 20.

"We need to do everything to prevent a third wave, do everything to prevent a third lockdown" Mr. Macron said.

"Spirits sometimes run low, debates grow heated," he added. "In these times, we must not allow ourselves to get carried away."

France, the hardest-hit country in Europe's second wave, has emerged as a barometer for Western governments torn between the need to save lives and the economic harm caused by renewed shutdowns.

That is a dilemma affecting countries across Europe. Strict lockdowns have helped slow the virus in Italy, Spain and the U.K. while also taking a heavy economic toll. In Germany, where the government wasn't as heavy-handed, the limited health measures enforced early this month failed to substantially bring down coronavirus cases.

"The turning of the trend that we had been hoping to see in November hasn't materialized," Germany's central and regional governments wrote on Tuesday in draft conclusions reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Those governments will meet on Wednesday to discuss a possible tightening of the country's moderate lockdown and its extension until Dec. 20.

Tension began building inside Mr. Macron's government from the onset of France's second lockdown on Oct. 30. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire began pushing for stores to be allowed to reopen. His efforts were met with resistance from Prime Minister Jean Castex, who worried the country could face a third wave of the coronavirus if the government eased lockdown rules too quickly before a vaccine became available.

Fueling the tension is a determination to avoid a repeat of past mistakes. France's economic stewards want to limit the draconian measures that made France's spring lockdown one of the strictest in the West, with schools and nonessential shops closed and people ordered to stay home. That caused the French economy to shrink by a post-World War II record of nearly 14% in the second quarter of this year.

Health officials, meanwhile, want to avoid the mistake the government made in quickly lifting the spring lockdown only to see the virus roar back in the fall.

"Maybe indeed, we ended the lockdown a little too soon," said Mr. Castex speaking last week in Parliament. "Maybe French people, like others, thought that this epidemic was behind us."

Through it all, Mr. Macron has vacillated between the camps, waving off his scientific advisers at times and embracing the lockdown at others. When the number of new infections started picking up again over the summer, Mr. Macron was reluctant to take drastic measures that could hinder the country's economic recovery.

"A lockdown, it's the crudest measure to fight against a virus, the most simple-minded thing we have done since Middle Ages," Mr. Macron told reporters on Aug. 28.

In early September, Dr. Jean-François Delfraissy, who leads the scientific board advising French authorities on how to tackle the pandemic, said he was worried about the evolution of the epidemic in France. "The government will need to make a certain number of difficult decisions within the next eight to 10 days," he said.

Mr. Macron bristled at the suggestion, saying that the government was aiming to slow down contagion while continuing to let people live as normally as possible, and that scientists don't make policy.

"Everyone must stay in their lane. It is up to democratically elected leaders to make decisions," Mr. Macron said.

By October, the virus had grown out of control, threatening to overwhelm France's hospitals.

Mr. Macron announced a new national lockdown on Oct. 28. Schools and factories remained open, however, to cushion the economic impact of the restrictions.

Mr. Le Maire, the finance minister, started working with retailers to develop a new health protocol to allow shops to reopen before the holidays. The last four weekends before Christmas account for about 20% to 40% of retailers' annual revenue, according to the retailers federation. Mr. Le Maire went on national television last week, saying shops were ready to reopen as quickly as possible, and noting that the weekend after Black Friday was crucial.

Olivier Veran, the health minister, shot down the timetable. "I have no reason to believe [shops] could reopen on Nov. 27," he said.

By Nov. 18, Mr. Macron had changed his tune, according to a French official, telling his cabinet in a closed-door meeting: "Relaxing our efforts now would risk having made them for nothing."

Retailers have offered a compromise: They pledged to postpone Black Friday sales by a week if they were allowed to reopen by then. France doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving -- the day that precedes Black Friday in the U.S., but French retailers have adopted Black Friday to spur sales in recent years. Last year, retailers made 6 billion euros in sales on Black Friday, equivalent to $7.08 billion, according to a finance ministry spokesman.

Mr. Macron didn't address the status of Black Friday in his address on Tuesday. But he said bars, restaurants and gyms were eligible to receive state aid of up to 20% of their 2019 revenue.

"I know we've asked entrepreneurs to make sacrifices," Mr. Macron said. "Today we stand together, tomorrow we will win together."

--Bertrand Benoit in Berlin contributed to this article.

Write to Noemie Bisserbe at noemie.bisserbe@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at stacy.meichtry@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 24, 2020 16:25 ET (21:25 GMT)

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