(Bloomberg Opinion) -- France’s experience of Covid-19 has been one of logistical public-service highs and infantilizing, bureaucratic lows.
Its springtime lockdown, one of the strictest in Europe, saved lives and protected overloaded hospitals but also punished people for leaving home without the right authorization form or jogging at the wrong hour. The government fretted about panic-buying so much that even purchases of nicotine patches were restricted. When President Emmanuel Macron’s administration began loosening curbs in May, the French mille-feuille of government red tape added a few more layers, with 101 plans for each one of France’s administrative departments.
Now at the height of the summer tourism season, with people moving around more and Covid-19 cases rising to levels reminiscent of the early stages of the pandemic — albeit with a fraction of the hospitalizations and deaths — the bureaucratic impulse is back. Prime Minister Jean Castex pledged new measures on Tuesday, from broader adoption of face-masks to more testing and information campaigns, saying the infection curve was going “the wrong way.” You could hardly call it a second wave, with confirmed daily deaths averaging at 7 compared with almost 1,000 during the peak, but politicians have understandably thinner skins these days.
The government’s alertness is commendable. This is no ordinary summer: The French are itching to wander after months of being cooped up, and more than two-thirds of holidaymakers staying in France. The coronavirus is traveling with them too, as demonstrated by new clusters cropping up across France. With mounting evidence that sun-seekers are dropping their guard on social distancing — and with cases also rising in neighboring Spain — the Macron administration clearly wants to adopt a belt-and-braces stance before the back-to-school season and the return of winter infections like influenza. Tackling these logistical challenges — plus a historic heatwave, which can be fatal for the elderly — plays to the state’s strengths.
But the danger is that as tougher and more complex rules pile up, the public’s trust will erode. A case in point would be face masks: While already mandatory in enclosed public spaces like hotels, restaurants and public transport, cities including Paris this week made them required outdoors too in areas where social distancing isn’t possible. The results have been worthy of the Surrealists who thrived in the French capital a century ago.
Paris’s new map of no-go areas for the unmasked, devised by local authorities according to state guidelines, is a mess. The hipster-ish Canal St Martin is on there, as are the popular hangout spots on the banks of the Seine, but the most famous shopping avenue in the city — the Champs-Elysees — is not. (It’s long and wide enough to accommodate social distancing, apparently.) If you want to head for the heart of Montmartre, maybe to pose for a portrait, bring a mask. For those walking by the central Les Halles shopping center with its 50 million annual visitors, there’s no need. Forget border closures — this is sidewalk epidemiology.
Confused Covid-19 rules aren’t only a French affair: People in parts of Northern England are banned from meeting those from other parts indoors, and Brussels has also imposed a street-by-street mask policy. But this attempt at Cartesian city planning is still clumsy.
The inconsistent messaging and lack of clear signs at street level have made the rules hard to follow for people on the ground. They’re unlikely to take well to being fined 135 euros ($158) when police start enforcing them. Critics from the medical community have branded the policy “incomprehensible” from a scientific point of view, partly because the virus spreads far more successfully indoors. There could be serious unintended consequences: People may handle their masks at every street corner, especially given the summer heat, making them less effective. Or they might ditch the outdoors and meet indoors, creating more convenient spaces for the virus to mingle.
To be fair, Macron’s ministers seem aware of these pitfalls, and on Tuesday Castex called for new rules to go beyond the current setup and examine mask habits in the workplace too.
Even an overly fussy approach to mask-wearing outdoors might work as part of a layered package: Research into policy responses to the 1918 Spanish influenza found multiple social-distancing precautions such as quarantine, transport restrictions and masks worked together over time to limit the infection. A one-size-fits-all policy that makes masks mandatory everywhere, for example, might be hard to enforce and might prove too broad-brush. Joan Ramon Villalbi Hereter of Catalonia’s public health department tells me that masks make perfect sense in crowded public areas and indoor settings — but less so elsewhere.
Yet the Spanish flu and other epidemics also teach us that public trust in health-care policy can be easily lost, and consistency matters. The French initially approved of lockdown, but turned against it by the end, angry over a lack of testing and medical equipment. Those resource gaps have been partly filled, but not fully.
If the Macron administration’s new policies opt for belittling layers of rules and top-down punishment over individual responsibility and better testing (and tracing) strategies, politicians will feel the heat long after summer’s over.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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