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France wants answers from Macron over virus, jobs and racism

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is giving an address to his nation Sunday after an unusually long silence, as France faces both exceptional economic blowback from the virus pandemic and rekindled anger over deep-seated racism.

From struggling restaurant owners to worn-out nurses and minorities angry over police brutality, people across France want Macron to address their concerns.

His office says Macron's evening speech will focus mainly on the virus that has plunged France into its worst crisis since World War II: the gradual reopening process, the economic challenges ahead, and “strengths and weaknesses” in his government’s handling of the pandemic.

He's speaking just hours before France reopens its borders with European neighbors, and as Paris restaurants await news on when they can reopen in full.

The president last week ordered an internal audit into how his administration handled the virus — notably compared to other countries like Germany. That’s in addition to a parliamentary inquiry already underway.

Despite having one of the world's best health care systems, France was dangerously short of all kinds of masks and testing capacity as coronavirus patients overwhelmed intensive care wards in March. More than 80 lawsuits have been filed accusing his government of manslaughter, neglect or otherwise mishandling the virus crisis.

Macron sent in the army to help and ordered strict lockdown measures that slowed the spread. But nearly 30,000 people have died, about half of them in nursing homes, and more than 150,000 have been infected. More than 200 new virus clusters have emerged since France started reopening May 11, according to the national health agency.

Meanwhile, his government is facing growing pressure to confront racism and police violence.

At least 15,000 people demonstrated in Paris on Saturday, the latest in a string of French protests galvanized by George Floyd's death in the U.S. and the Black Lives Matter movement, but increasingly focused on France's own tensions between police and minorities.

In response, the government banned police chokeholds and vowed to stamp out racism among police — but that has now angered police unions, who say they're being unfairly painted as white supremacists and staged protests of their own.

Calls are also mounting to reassess France's colonial legacy, causing division within Macron's own camp.

Over the past two days, the culture minister denounced the decision to cancel a Paris showing of “Gone With the Wind” — a film long criticized as romanticizing slavery — as contrary to freedom of expression. And he firmly condemned activists who tried to take a piece of African art from a Paris museum dedicated to artwork from former colonies.

But government minister Sibeth Ndiaye — a close Macron ally and the most prominent black figure in current French politics — wrote an unusually personal essay Saturday in Le Monde calling for France to rethink its colorblind doctrine, which aims at encouraging equality by ignoring race altogether.

“We must not hesitate to name things, to say that a skin color is not neutral,” she wrote. She called on the French to “confront our memories” about their history and find a “shared narrative” with former colonies.

Macron’s office firmly denied a report last week that he was considering resigning and calling a snap election, but the rumor reflected the gravity of the French mood.

A new forecast last week from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed France’s economy will suffer more than most from the coming recession — and isn't expected to improve much by the next presidential election in 2022.

The economy is expected to shrink at least 11% percent this year, pushing many out of work and torpedoing Macron’s goals of bringing down unemployment, rehauling the retirement system and making France more globally competitive.

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Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak, and coverage of protests against racial injustice and police brutality at https://apnews.com/GeorgeFloyd

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