by John Lichfield
Friday, 21
January 2022
Explainer
07:00

France’s answer to Partygate: honeymooning in Ibiza

Macron's education minister changed the rules while on a holiday break
by John Lichfield
Jean-Michel Blanquer (L) and Emmnauel Macron

For an education minister to announce new rules for testing for pupils for Covid a few hours before the start of term may be an error. To do so from a luxury hotel in Ibiza while on honeymoon starts to look like carelessness.

Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French education minister, has admitted his faux pas. The choice of the upmarket Spanish island resort for his short honeymoon break during a towering Omicron wave of Covid-19, was “symbolically” wrong, he said.

Only symbolically, though. He insisted that his convoluted choices for the multiple testing of pupils — already amended twice since his Ibiza Declaration on 2 January — were correct (at the time).

Teachers, pupils and parents disagree. The entire alphabet soup of French teaching unions and parents and pupils’ pressure groups – the FSU, CGT Educ’action, FO, SUD FCPE,  FIDL, MNL etc — called strikes and street marches yesterday to protest against the testing rules and Monsieur Blanquer’s holiday. These were the second strikes of their kind in a week.

Some French commentators and opposition politicians have compared the education minister’s honeymoon break to the serial revelations about lockdown-busting drinks parties in the British Prime Minister’s official residence, 10 Downing Street. In both cases, they suggest, there was “no rule for the rulers” and a jumble of complex rules for the ruled. For “partygate”, read “Ibizagate”.

This is going too far. Blanquer broke no Covid rules by going to Spain. He informed his Prime Minister. He stayed within two hours flying time of Paris as the cabinet guidelines demanded. He even seems to have spent most of his three-day-long honeymoon working.

His new wife (his third) would no doubt have understood. Anna Cabana, 42, is a senior political journalist and TV pundit who has written successful books about ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cecilia Attias as well as ex-President François Hollande’s love triangle in the Elysée Palace.

Blanquer is (or was) one of the favourite ministers of the present President. He is not a career politician but an academic, a senior civil servant and business school head, who was chosen by Emmanuel Macron to give intellectual and conservative ballast to the government. As education minister, he has often angered the Left-wing teaching unions but also infuriated wider parts of the political Left by making outspoken attacks on “le wokisme”.

His mentor, President Macron, was not amused by the belated rule-change for school Covid tests. He even criticised the decision publicly. That is partly because the new test requirements – up to four for each student — proved unworkable. There were long queues of parents outside pharmacies, which rapidly ran out of tests.

A senior government official said the whole saga was a “nightmare” for Macron three months before the first round of the presidential election. Unlike most other European countries, France has kept its schools open during the pandemic, except during the first March-May lockdown in 2020. The success of this policy was to be one of President Macron’s proudest campaign boasts.

The Ibiza story has also distracted from the fact that Macron’s pre-Christmas gamble in refusing to lock down the country in order to flatten the Omicron wave of Covid looks to have been vindicated. Although case numbers are at record levels — not least in schools — admissions to acute care are now tumbling.

Will Blanquer pay the price for his gaffe? Probably not. Sacking a minister just before an election is not regarded as a good idea. In any case, French politics are often influenced by the street. The turnout for yesterday’s strike and marches was poor. But Blanquer will not be able to return to his honeymoon anytime soon.

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