Coronavirus: France’s Macron warns of populist threat to EU over recovery funding

French president has repeatedly backed debt sharing mechanism to help states worst-hit by pandemic

French President Emmanuel Macron, attends a video conference call with French virologist and President of the Research and Expertise Analysis Committee (Comite Analyse Recherche et Expertise, CARE) Francoise Barre-Sinoussi on ongoing efforts to accelerate the development and access to vaccine and treatment against the coronavirus at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Yoan Valat/Pool Photo via AP)
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French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday pressed the need for richer members of the European Union to do more to pay for economic rebuilding if the 27-nation bloc is to survive.

The EU needs to see "financial transfers and solidarity" if it's going to "hold on" through the coronavirus crisis, Mr Macron said in an interview with the UK's Financial Times newspaper.

The French leader warned that populists will win "in Italy, in Spain, perhaps in France and elsewhere" if European countries do not launch a rescue fund that can issue joint debt to cope with the economic fallout from the pandemic.

European countries have "no choice" but to set up a fund that "could issue common debt with a common guarantee", he said.

EU leaders are preparing for the latest instalment of their battle over so-called coronabonds at a virtual summit next week.

France has been leading calls for joint debt issuance to finance the EU’s economic recovery, a tool that would see countries like Germany and the Netherlands back loans to Italy and others that have suffered more from the pandemic.

But Germany and the Netherlands have ruled out such a move, arguing that the euro-area rescue fund can more efficiently provide assistance.

Mr Macron said such intransigence will boost the chances of Eurosceptic populists taking power that would put the EU at risk.

He also said it is “unacceptable” that some EU countries are using the pandemic as an excuse to restrict freedoms, a jab at Hungary’s Viktor Orban who has taken on extraordinary powers amid the outbreak.

France's registered death toll from coronavirus infections rose towards 18,000 on Thursday, but some data suggested the spread of the disease has been contained after a one-month national lockdown, officials said.

During a press conference Jerome Salomon, head of the public health authority, said the number of people in hospital had declined for a second day running, and that the total number in intensive care units had fallen for the eighth day in a row.

"Our collective efforts demonstrate their effectiveness. The spread of the virus is stabilising at a high level (...) and that is good news," Mr Salomon said.

Corroborating this observation, senior health officials in Paris - the worst-hit region in France - said there was reason for optimism in the fight against the new coronavirus in view of the number of hospitalisations and admissions to ICU units.

But Mr Salomon said the French health system was still under huge stress and that it was crucial French citizens continued to comply with the lockdown put in place on March 17 and extended to May 11 on Monday.

"The decline in intensive care needs is consolidating, but 6,248 patients in ICU units is a much higher figure than the initial maximum capacity in these units in France," Mr Salomon said.

That number was however at its lowest since April 1 and is down by almost 1,000 from its April 8 peak of 7,148. Before Covid-19 started to spread, France had 5,000 hospital beds equipped with ventilation gear.

At 17,920, the number of fatalities is up 4.4 per cent over 24 hours, with the rate of increase decelerating again after speeding up in the two previous days.

France has the fourth highest tally of fatalities in the world, behind the United States, Italy and Spain. These four countries account for almost two-thirds of the current global total of more than 140,000 deaths.