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By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron met with top officials on Jan. 29 and revealed a surprise: despite the urgings of some senior ministers and independent scientists, he would try to steer the country out of the pandemic without locking it down again.
His gamble was that if France could avoid a third large-scale lockdown, he could give the economy a chance to recover from a deep slowdown that, some in his circle felt, could soon replace the virus as the biggest challenge of his presidency.
But the tactic is beginning to unravel, with intensive care units in some parts of France on the verge of overflowing with COVID-19 patients, coronavirus cases surging and his government announcing a new round of tougher restrictions on Thursday.
Interviews with six people close to Macron's administration show how the French leader, having arrived at the decision to avoid another lockdown, came under intensifying pressure to change course as the toll from the virus rose again.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Jean Castex on Monday, Stanislas Guerini, head of the pro-Macron faction in parliament, said the effort to avoid a lockdown was starting to look like "obstinacy", according to a parliamentary source close to Macron who was present.
The presidential administration did not respond to a request for comment on the reasons behind Macron's choices over COVID-19 restrictions. Two aides, speaking anonymously, said they still believed Macron had chosen the right course.
Macron's decision to focus on economic challenges was not unique. Some European leaders have plotted a similar course, while others opted for tougher restrictions in the hope of reaping the financial rewards later.
The final bill for the coronavirus crisis has yet to be tallied, but it is already daunting.
The Eurozone will only get back to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity in 2022, lagging behind the United States and Japan which will reach that mark already this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The government led by Macron, who is expected to run for a second term in 2022 presidential elections, has said it was targeting 6% economic growth in 2021, but only if there was not another lockdown.
After his government announced on Thursday that it would impose a month-long lockdown on Paris and several other regions, it was not immediately clear if the government would lower the target.
The restrictions, while not national, cover the country's biggest population centre and go significantly beyond the curfews and localised restrictions of movement at weekends that officials have been deploying so far this year.
The officials interviewed by Reuters requested anonymity because they were discussing private deliberations.
At the end of January, French Health Minister Olivier Veran, worried about a forecast post-holiday surge of COVID-19 cases, was lobbying for a new national lockdown, according to a government source who attends meetings of the Defence Council, Macron's COVID-19 war room.
Castex, the prime minister, wanted to keep a national lockdown on the table, according to a source close to Castex.
Asked to comment, a representative for Castex said the prime minister shared Macron’s view that there should be no pre-emptive lockdown. Veran's office declined to comment.
On the evening of Jan. 29, ministers were given an hour's notice to come to a 6:00 p.m. meeting of the Defence Council, said the government source who attended the meetings.
The source said Macron announced to assembled officials that he had decided against a lockdown. Instead, there would be localised measures much less restrictive than the two national lockdowns imposed in 2020.
Castex arrived at the meeting unaware of what Macron would propose, according to the source close to Castex, and the government source who attended.
But Macron's team felt they had strong grounds to make the call.
They noted that the post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases had not materialised. Vaccines were being rolled out. They believed less severe restrictions on movement would work and also worried about the impact of a new lockdown on people's mental health.
Another factor at play was that, days before the meeting, the Netherlands had seen three nights of anti-lockdown rioting.
A member of parliament with Macron's party, mindful of the Dutch riots, said at the time French people were increasingly fed up with restrictions. A new lockdown could be "the straw that breaks the camel's back," the lawmaker told Reuters.
But the biggest consideration, according to a person familiar with Macron's thinking and the parliamentary source, was the economy.
Macron and his team believed other EU countries with three or more lockdowns would recover more slowly.
The 2022 election is expected to be won or lost on how well France limits the economic fallout from the pandemic, said the parliamentary source.
In the weeks afterwards, when discussing their strategy, Macron aides deployed a mantra in public and private: "Every day we avoid a lockdown is a day gained."
As Macron embarked on his new strategy, problems emerged. A quick rollout of the vaccine was vital to keep a lid on new COVID-19 cases.
At the end of January, vaccination centres cancelled or postponed thousands of appointments because they did not have enough Pfizer and Moderna shots. The manufacturers blamed production problems.
Veran had predicted that 3.5-4.0 million people would have received a first shot by the end of February. Official data showed the actual figure was 3.02 million.
New, more virulent variants of COVID-19, first identified in Britain and South Africa, spread through France and contributed to rising sickness rates.
In Paris, longer days and sunny weather brought thousands of people into parks and to the banks of the Seine river, some defying a 6:00 p.m. curfew designed to help keep a lid on transmissions.
On March 1, Dominique Costagliola, one of France's leading epidemiologists, told Reuters death rates were back to alarming levels.
"It's as if every day, there has been a fatal plane crash. So really, are the measures sufficient? I would say no," said Costagliola.
She does not advise the government on COVID-19; those scientists who do say they never recommend policy decisions.
By March 16, there were 1,177 people with COVID-19 in intensive care units in Paris and the surrounding region - more than at the peak of the second wave in November when France was in nationwide lockdown.
Critical care doctors in the region said their units were close to overload.
Macron's officials explored ways to ease the situation without a lockdown.
A second government source said options included setting up military hospitals and stepping up operations to medevac patients from Paris to other parts of the country.
By Monday, the options had narrowed further.
France followed Germany in suspending use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine pending investigations into reported side effects, risking further disruption to its vaccination rollout.
The second government source said that this decision removed a big part of the rationale for avoiding another lockdown.
The same day, Guerini, the chief Macron loyalist in parliament, spoke up at a meeting for lawmakers in the prime minister's office. He picked up on the Macron team mantra about the benefits of avoiding lockdown.
The parliamentary source who was present quoted Guerini referring to a growing public debate "between those who think it's a day gained, and those who think it's a day lost."
A representative for Guerini confirmed to Reuters he made those comments, but said they were not a criticism of Macron.
By Wednesday, Macron and his ministers had decided that lockdowns for some regions could no longer be ruled out, said the first government source, who attends Defence Council meetings.
Castex announced on Thursday that the new lockdown would be imposed on the 16 hardest-hit departments, including Paris and its surroundings, as well as parts of the north. It takes effect from midnight on Friday.
Still, Macron's team believed it took the right decision in not ordering a lockdown earlier, on the grounds that it bought some breathing space for the economy.
"If you're asking me if there are regrets, no," said the source familiar with Macron's thinking.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Richard Lough and Leigh Thomas; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mike Collett-White)