Monday, December 11, 2023

France Macron tested positive, and now Europe is scrambling to put the lid on a potential COVID cluster

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News Thursday morning that French President Emmanuel Macron had tested positive for the coronavirus landed like a pre-Christmas bomb not only in his own country – but also in the 27-country European Union, whose leaders have said the shuttle between and people for weeks, grappling with a looming economic crisis, Britain’s imminent Brexit departure from the EU and, of course, the second wave of the pandemic.

Now the question is: could EU leaders emerge as a COVID-19 cluster?

This worrying possibility was clearly on the minds of politicians following the news of Macron’s infection. Shortly after Macron tested positive, European Council President Charles Michel began to isolate himself, as did Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who both met Macron in Paris on Monday – in Sanchez’s case, with a lunch with the French leader. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who had lunch with Macron on Wednesday, has also isolated himself, as has Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo.

Macron took the coronavirus test Thursday morning after experiencing “the first symptoms” on Wednesday evening, according to the Elysee Palace. The statement does not say when the French leader recently tested negative, leaving it uncertain when he was infected and how long he may have been contagious. After the result came back positive, Macron immediately began a seven-day quarantine period inside the ornate presidential residence, along with his wife Brigitte Macron. French Prime Minister Jean Castex and President of the National Assembly Richard Ferrand also immediately isolated themselves. Castex tested negative on Thursday.

But that leaves many politicians who could have been exposed to the virus. French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said contact tracing has already started, implicating anyone Macron may have inadvertently infected – or perhaps been infected with. “I have to insist that the virus is circulating in France,” Attal said, reminding people to observe social distancing and health measures.

Macron’s list of contacts over the past week is like a who’s-who of Europe’s top political figures.

It includes 25 of the 27 EU leaders who gathered in Brussels for a crucial two-day summit last Thursday and Friday. Leaders have been in intensely close contact for weeks, often in person, putting together a € 1.8 trillion ($ 2.2 trillion) coronavirus relief package, and have locked themselves in tense discussions over the Brexit, which is due to go into effect on January 1 – just two weeks away.

“It is an awareness,” said Thursday Brigitte Autran, scientific member of the government COVID-19 vaccination committee on BFM Television. “No one is immune to the virus, not even the head of state.” Macron’s infection came more than two months after President Trump tested positive for the virus.

Busy schedule

Of all the European leaders, Macron, who turns 43 on Monday, is probably the most kinetic, with a busy agenda even during the pandemic, and a parade of world leaders who regularly arrive at his doorstep at the Elysee Palace. A glance at his busy schedule this last week – when it may have been contagious – makes reading unsettling.

Last Monday, he met senior diplomats in Paris for the 60e anniversary of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), then he had lunch with Spanish leader Sanchez. He met with climate leaders on Monday. On Tuesday, he held a meeting of the defense and security council, met with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as leaders of the French National Assembly, and had lunch with the French prime minister. On Wednesday, he had lunch with Portuguese leader Costa and met the entire French cabinet, which was seated side by side at the Elysee Palace for its weekly meeting with the president. “We wore masks, except during lunch,” Damien Abad, National Assembly leader of the opposition Republican party, told BFM of his meeting on Tuesday.

Macron’s infection shows how extremely complicated it is to contain the Second Wave in Europe, a region of some 450 million people, many of whom cross borders easily, conducting vast international affairs.

I myself witnessed this during a two-day visit to Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday. The high-speed trains connecting Paris and Brussels, a 90-minute journey, were full in both directions, with no spare seat.

In the European Parliament building in the Belgian capital, there were dozens of delegates in and out of the small meeting rooms on both days. Many of the 704 Members of the European Parliament remain in their home countries, connecting to meetings on video conferencing platforms. But many are there in person, dealing with a dizzying array of issues.

On Wednesday afternoon, dozens of politicians were in the main chamber of Parliament to approve the biggest financial relief measures ever taken by the EU. The session was chaired by the two main EU leaders, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Michel, who took off their masks as they spoke, one after another, from the podium, hailing the € 1.8 trillion deal as a momentous achievement, after weeks of heated negotiations. Later, the Speaker of Parliament, David Sassoli, addressed some 20 journalists in a small conference hall, as well as opposition leaders from Belarus, who had come from Warsaw, Vilnius and other cities. of the EU.

Containing COVID-19 under these conditions, in the lives of ordinary people, has proven extremely difficult.

Like other leaders, Macron struggled to strike a balance between allowing the French to celebrate Christmas, without turning the holidays into super-spreader event that could send COVID-19 back to rabies. When stores reopened on December 1, after a month-long lockdown, thousands flocked to Christmas groceries, possibly fearing another lockdown; outside the upscale Le Bon Marché department store in Paris, lines of shoppers spanned half a block. The government has previously said it will lock down on Christmas if new COVID-19 cases exceed 5,000 per day. France reported 17,615 new cases in a 24-hour period on Wednesday. So far, the government has yet to announce stricter pandemic restrictions.

The French government has ordered ski resorts to remain closed during the holidays, as have the Austrian and Italian governments. Yet Swiss ski resorts remain open – and many French people will simply drive across the border or take a train and get there instead.

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