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The high-speed train whooshing past historic World War I battle zones and through the chateau-speckled Loire Valley carried a delicate cargo: 20 critically ill COVID-19 patients and the machines helping keep them alive.

The TGV-turned-mobile-intensive-care-unit is just one piece of France’s nationwide mobilization of trains, helicopters, jets and even a warship, deployed to relieve congested hospitals and shuffle hundreds of patients and hundreds more medical personnel in and out of coronavirus hotspots.

“We are at war,” President Emmanuel Macron tells his compatriots, again and again, casting himself as a warrior and harnessing the might of the armed forces to fight this invisible foe.

But while the extraordinary mobilization seems to be helping, critics charge the 42-year-old leader waited far too long to act in the first place. France, one of the world’s wealthiest countries with one of the best health care systems, they say, should never have found itself so deep in crisis.

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Macron had just emerged from weeks of damaging retirement strikes and a year of violent “yellow vest” protests over economic injustice when the pandemic hit. Now he is struggling to keep the house running in one of the world’s hardest-hit countries.

The Rungis food market south of Paris, Europe’s biggest, is transforming into a morgue as France’s death count races past 8,000. Nearly 7,000 patients are in intensive care, pushing French hospitals to their limit and beyond.

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