PARIS - The high-speed train whooshing past historic World War I battle sites and through the chateau-speckled Loire Valley carried a delicate cargo: 20 critically ill COVID-19 patients and the breathing 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 medical personnel in and out of coronavirus hotspots.
"We are at war," President Emmanuel Macron tells his compatriots, again and again.
But as the 42-year-old leader casts himself as a warrior and harnesses the might of the armed forces, critics charge that he waited far too long to act against this foe. 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.
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 7,500. Nearly 7,000 patients are in intensive care, pushing French hospitals to their limit and beyond. Doctors are rationing painkillers and re-using masks.
France's centralized state and powerful presidency make it easier to coordinate the exceptional patient-moving efforts, which have crisscrossed the country and even extended to overseas territories.