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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
Olivier Veran, the health minister, shot down the timetable. "I
have no reason to believe [shops] could reopen on Nov. 27," he
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
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
"I know we've asked entrepreneurs to make sacrifices," Mr.
Macron said. "Today we stand together, tomorrow we will win
--Bertrand Benoit in Berlin contributed to this article.
Write to Noemie Bisserbe at email@example.com and Stacy
Meichtry at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 24, 2020 16:25 ET (21:25 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.