Once Upon A Time In France: Poll Positions, Biden Time, Video Game Nation

Dreaming of the Pyrénées-Orientales.

Being 52 years old, I am now theoretically within an age group that could be vaccinated in France, though only if I have comorbidities. More likely, it will be April or May before I’m eligible.

So, there is some hope there but it’s buried within a larger sense of frustration. The vaccination efforts in France continue to present a maddening set of contradictions and it’s not clear anyone has a solid plan for resolving them.

The pace of shots (or as the British annoyingly call them, “jabs”) has picked up steam since a stumbling start. According to CovidTracker, 3,772,579 have gotten at least the first dose of the vaccine, up 186,403 in 24 hours. Yet that’s only 5.63% percent of the population.

To reach the government’s goal of vaccinating all adults by August, that pace needs to be 541,881 every day. At the current rate, CovidTracker estimates the government won’t hit its mark until November 12, 2022.

Underlying these numbers, there are several dynamics that further complicate things. France has a well-documented vaccine-skeptic culture. But adding to that, the main vaccine available here is the AstraZeneca, which is only 70% effective. Better than nothing, perhaps, but it’s somewhat understandable that many want to wait for other vaccines to be distributed. At the same time, only one-third of frontline health care workers have been vaccinated, even though there are enough doses for all of them. Why? Because many are reluctant and so far have refused to get their jab. (See, doesn’t that sound silly?)

The prime minister has launched a campaign to get them on board, but for now, it’s looking like a long road.

Meanwhile, variants are running rampant, and the government is extending the number of regions that must go into lockdown over the weekend. President Macron has suggested it may be another 4 to 6 weeks before he can start lifting some restrictions. But clearly, patience is running low as bars and restaurants remain closed and the April vacation period looms. (Actually, in France, a vacation period always looms).

Naturally, all of this is weighing on the 2022 presidential campaign, which has all but officially kicked off. France holds two rounds of votes, with the first slated for April 2022. The top 2 candidates advance to the second round 2 weeks later.

Here, again, the signs are muddled. A recent poll indicated that Macron has a 41% approval rating. That may not sound like much, but in a country where hating the president is the national pastime (at one point Macron’s predecessor, President Hollande, fell to 8%), a rating this high just one year out is remarkable.

And in another poll, Macron appears to be increasingly popular with younger voters and voters on the left. This contradicts the perception that he’s been governing further to the right to beat back conservative challenges.

So, it would seem everything is coming up roses for Macron, except….

Yet another poll showed that in a second-round vote between Macron and right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen, he only holds a 53% to 47% edge. This follows a shocking cover story in the left-leaning Libération newspaper late last month that suggested many voters on the left would not rally to Macron’s side in the second round as they did in 2017. This is the so-called “Front Republican,” and it seems to be softening.

Unfortunately, France’s left is in total disarray. The Socialist Party, France’s traditional center-left party, was decimated by Macron in 2017. The farther left party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon has its own problem: It’s still led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He is passionately loved by some, but detested by too many to succeed in the first round. And the emerging Green Party, which did well last summer in municipal elections, doesn’t quite have a national presence that would allow it to gain one of the top 2 spots.

The logical thing would be for the three to unify, but that’s unlikely thanks to egos, ambitions, demands for ideological purity, and turf wars.

If there is a figure who has an outside chance of doing this, it’s Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The Socialist Party mayor won re-election last summer thanks to a tenuous coalition with local Greens and has indeed been aggressive in developing plans to make Paris eco-friendly. The problem for the Paris Mayor is that she is the mayor of Paris. Coming off a long stretch of Yellow Vest protests targeting the elites in Paris, Hidalgo is now launching a campaign to shatter her image as an elite from Paris by touring the hinterlands.

She has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Initial polls gave her between 6% to 9% in a first-round vote next year.

The betting money is on Macron vs Le Pen for 2022. And that means a year’s worth of political anxiety on top of the pandemic anxiety.

Biden Time

The Trump trade wars were rough for France, especially producers of wine and cheese. The disputes flowed from the ongoing trade battle between aeronautic giants Boeing and Airbus. Coming amid the global pandemic, the higher U.S. tariffs on French products have been particularly devastating.

That included a 25% tariff added to spirits and wine at the end of December.

So news that European leaders had reached an agreement with the Biden administration to suspend such tariffs for 4 months and try to resolve all related Boeing-Airbus issues was widely cheered.

“New start for the transatlantic trade relationship! Europe and the U.S. suspend surcharges related to Boeing and Airbus conflict. The American surcharges in force since October 2019 on the importation of French wine are therefore suspended ‘for an initial period of 4 months!’ tweeted Frederic Jung, the counsel general of the French Consulate in San Francisco.

Last year, the global pandemic and a trade war with the U.S. delivered a one-two punch to France’s wine and spirits industry. According to the Federation of Wine and Spirits Exporters (FEVS), exports fell 13.9% last year.

The industry reported €12.1 billion in exports in 2020, dropping to levels last seen in 2016. Champagne continued to be one of the hardest-hit sectors as sales dropped 18% by volume.

So, the lifting of trade tariffs is some good news that everyone can toast.

Video Game Nation

If your image of the French is a band of cultural snobs who sit at cafés all day discussing Sartre, then it may surprise you to learn that in 2020 they spent far more on video games than books.

Hello, Generation Animal Crossing.

Video game-related sales increased 11.3% in 2020, according to the Syndicate of Software Publishers. The big titles were Fifa 21 and Animal Crossing.

The €5.3 billion spent on video games outstripped the €4 billion spent on books last year. The national lockdown played a big role in this. During the first confinement in March, the weekly playing time increased by 1h20 to pass 9 hours per week.

“The video game has fulfilled its role of entertainment, leisure, and escape. This was an opportunity for a number of people to discover, or rediscover, that video games could have a positive role, in particular by allowing people to maintain a social bond and to go through this crisis in a more positive way. positive, ” SELL president Julie Chalmette told the AFP.

It’s also a reminder that the French are not the Luddites that many in Silicon Valley would have you believe.

Dreaming Of France

The Pyrénées-Orientales is the far eastern part of the mountain range that stretches across the French-Spanish borders. Having once been part of Spain, it still clings to those roots in calling itself Pays Catalan. Indeed, the Catalan flag is as common as the French flag in this region.

At that far eastern edge, there are spectacular beaches. But during a two-week trip last summer, we spent most of our time exploring its natural wonders further inland. This includes some of the best thermal baths we have found in France. Not only did we visit a couple of thermal stations, but we also wandered out into the wilderness and found some of the natural hot springs flowing from sources right out of the ground. People have improvised stone pools to capture the water. Hikers jealously guard the exact locations, so you have to do some detective work to find them. But it was well worth the effort. (See photo above and more details here.)

We got to one such hot spring via the region’s famed Yellow Train, which takes passengers across some viaducts that afford panoramic views of the mountain landscape.

We also hiked up to get the spectacular overlook of the Saint-Martin du Canigou monastery. The P-O, as people like to call it, was one part of the Pyrénées we hadn’t explored previously. But it easily registers as one of the most spectacular.

Great Reads

Following his conviction last week, former President Nicolas Sarkozy began mounting a PR campaign to defend his name as he files an appeal. President Macron acknowledged that a famous Algerian lawyer and activist was killed by French soldiers during Algeria’s war for independence, another small gesture of reconciliation toward its former colony but one that fell short of the full-on apology for colonization some would like to see.

And finally, France’s very own Catholic Church scandal continues to grow. The Washington Post reports:

The head of a commission examining sexual abuse in France’s Catholic Church put the possible number of child victims at more than 10,000 on Tuesday, portending a public reckoning in a country where church officials long stalled efforts to investigate complicity.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, set up two years ago with the approval of French church officials, has so far received more than 6,500 testimonies from victims and witnesses on incidents alleged to have happened in the past seven decades.

“The big question for us is: How many victims came forward? Is it 25 percent? 10 percent, 5 percent or less?” commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé told journalists.

Chris O’Brien

Toulouse, France