As France seeks to ease its Covid-19 lock-in and halt the spread of the virus, French President Emmanuel Macron this week proposed forcing those infected to isolate themselves from others. His Prime Minister Jean Castex followed suit and soon promised a bill on the issue. But already the prospect of forcing people to fall in line with the coronavirus has been met with skepticism – and raised many questions – even on Macron’s own side of the political corridor.
Macron said in a statement on his roadmap to end France’s second deadlock on Tuesday, saying he wanted “the government and parliament to provide conditions to ensure the isolation of polluted people, including in a more restrictive way”. The president also promised to support the victims “in material, health and psychological terms”.
How was Macron’s proposal received? In a word: Insulation, of course. Forced confinement, maybe not.
Castex, for its part, said that the intention is not “control for the sake of control” but “to have a constraint that is better respected” and one that will be supported “by enhanced human and medical resources” so that “this isolation will improve accepted and therefore more effective “. The Prime Minister did not specify what the new measures would look like.
Penalties and issues
As France waits to hear more, the question marks grow. How does the government expect to issue such new coercive measures? What will be the penalty for non-compliance? How will the state support coronavirus-infected individuals “materially and psychologically”? All of these are considerations that Macron wants to open up for debate.
One thing is for sure, legislators are already thinking about possible details and throwing out the problems.
Gérard Larcher, the Conservatives’ Conservative spokesman, suggested that they tread carefully, given that what is at stake is nothing less than affecting “fundamental freedom”. The veteran senator seemed to dismiss Macron’s appeal to lawmakers from all parties to simply debate the issue on the floor and keep it to the vote, saying the matter “deserves a top-down debate that only bills can lead to”.
“A parliamentary debate is not enough. Real debate in Parliament is when there are bills and it is not enough for us to debate and vote,” Larcher told Radio 1 on Thursday. “If there must be restrictions, it must respect a certain number of conditions: respect for confidentiality between doctors and patients, support for people, what clauses in this isolation are.”
The Socialist minority leader in the lower house, for her part, said she did not think it was a good idea to isolate people. “If we have coercive measures, the French will no longer be tested,” Valérie Rabault told Sud Radio. “It’s much more risky as a strategy than having an incentive strategy.”
Right to right is also not happy with the idea. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen questioned the logistics of a plan that makes isolation mandatory. “There will come a time when you have to face reality: Shall we send police to people who test positive to see if the people are really at home?” she asked on Wednesday on Sud Radio and suggested the government “stop making decisions that it can not put into practice”.
Le Pen’s second-in-command, National Rally Vice President Jordan Bardella, also wondered how feasible the measures would be and said he would rather “convince than restrict”. The European Parliament’s legislator said he was “annoyed” by the government’s “permanent infantilization” of the French people.
French police check a driver’s license form on the Place de la Concorde in central Paris on November 13, 2020 during France’s second locking of the Covid-19. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP
Doubts also remain within the framework of Macron’s central majority. Former Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, now a member of Macron’s majority leader La République en Marche, has been sensible, saying he supports forcibly infected people to be isolated, but only if doctors’ patient confidentiality is respected.
“I am for if we succeed in guaranteeing … medical confidentiality, which is the domain of the state health insurer. Monitoring must take place within that framework,” Castaner said on Wednesday on LCI-tv.
“If, on the other hand, it is a file where you or I, if we have Covid-19 … we are in a file that is widely distributed, including to internal security forces, to the police, to the gendarmerie to lead checks on the street, I is opposed, “said Castaner, who oversaw law enforcement as interior minister for nearly two years until July.
On Friday, Castex guardians at a hospital in Brittany themselves met with skepticism about the idea of mandatory isolation. “I am convinced that there are people who, if you tell them that ‘you have an obligation to isolate yourself’, will not test themselves,” the prime minister told staff.
In fact, politicians are not the only ones expressing reservations about enforcing compliance. Healthcare professionals in France are also not sure it would work.
“Interest in compulsory isolation is limited,” Dr. Jean-Paul Harmon, a general practitioner in the Paris area and honorary president of the French Medicines Association (FMF), told the news site 20 Minutes. “I’m not really convinced that it’s necessary to pass an additional law, which is coercive. People are contagious even before they have symptoms, so they pollute their entourage before they are tested. [and] so before they are subjected to any mandatory isolation. “
Macron’s innovative proposal is in line with the appeal made by a healthcare collective. The France Assos Santé group represents 85 associations for healthcare users and has appealed to the government to introduce coercive coronavirus measures. The collective wants stricter isolation with “a complete restriction of movement and visits” for those who test positive and contact cases in their circle. The goal, they say, is simple: to avoid a third lock.
Compulsory isolation elsewhere in Europe
Legally, “a law that forces a patient to isolate themselves is in principle conceivable as long as it is limited in scope because the public health goal takes precedence over anything else,” Jean-Philippe Derosier, professor of public law at the University of Lille, told FRANCE 24 “But it is a good thing that coercion in these circumstances is less appropriate than effectively educating the public. Similar measures applied in other countries have not necessarily proved effective.”
Mandatory isolation rules reinforced by sanctions have already been introduced by France’s neighbors in Europe, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Belgium.
In Italy, infected individuals who do not respect their quarantine restrictions face three to 18 months behind bars and fines from 500 to 5,000 euros. The rules are even stricter in Spain; there, first-time offenders are subject to fines of 3,000 euros, while anyone who repeatedly violates isolation rules risks a penalty of up to 600,000 euros.
Greece has the most severe punishment. any infected person who is discovered violates the Covid-19 quarantine rules – without polluting anyone else – faces five years in prison. That penalty can increase to ten years if the perpetrator has infected at least one other person while breaking the rules and up to 15 years if that pollution causes death. If the quarantine breaker infects several people who die, the punishment can be life imprisonment.
Other countries have gone further in the methods available to monitor the isolation of coronavirus-infected patients. South Korea has resorted to technologies such as tracking smartphone data to enforce quarantine rules and has gone so far as to introduce an infected person who has not complied with the isolation rules with an electronic monitoring device.
France is not there yet. But the attempt to isolate people without coercion during the first lock in the spring had an obviously limited impact; the hotels and other facilities requisitioned for the purpose were then largely empty. Questions also remain about how one tends to infect people’s social contacts, which are considered so important during this difficult period, especially when it comes to the mental health of society’s most vulnerable. All are elements that French legislators will be thinking about in the coming days.
This article has been adapted and translated from the original into French.