French President Emmanuel Macron is once again floundering as he struggles to placate starkly contrasting views on the coronavirus pandemic among the French electorate, giving the French people the impression that he is merely "reacting" to each new twist in the virus saga.
According to a series of recent polls highlighted by the FT earlier, Macron has seen his support - compared with that of his former second-round presidential rival Marine Le Pen, still the leader of the National Rally party - decline markedly since the start of the crisis.
A Harris Interactive opinion poll published last week showed Macron had lost ground to Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National, his main rival, polling 23-24 per cent against her 26-27 per cent in voting intentions for the first round in April next year.
A more incendiary finding, leaked to the French media but not published by Harris, showed that in a hypothetical contest between the two in the second and final round, Macron was set to beat Le Pen by only 4 percentage points at 52-48, compared with his convincing 66-34 victory in the 2017 election.
Other polls, however, are less dramatic, with a new Ipsos poll giving Macron a 12-point lead in the second round, and political commentators are cautious about drawing too many conclusions about election outcomes more than a year ahead of the vote — even if they criticise Macron’s performance.
One analyst went so far as to say Macron's weak handling of the pandemic has seemed too much like his government is just reacting. Recently, the French leader decided against invoking a third lockdown, and opted instead to tighten travel restrictions.
"Is there even a [French Covid] strategy?” asked Virginie Martin, a political analyst at Kedge Business School, pointing out that France was ranked 73 out of 98 countries in the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance index based on the number of cases, deaths and tests. “We have the impression of being always reactive, of being half a step behind.” Martin said almost half of France was angry with Macron’s government and the situation, but added that this polarisation of society had not translated into a common front against the president because people were angry about different and sometimes contradictory things.
The problem, the FT added, is that the French people are intensely divided about the pandemic, on everything from how it should be handled, and whether vaccines should be viewed as safe, or suspect.
Many do not want vaccines at all, while others complain France is vaccinating too slowly (just over two doses per hundred people so far, compared with five in Denmark and 15 in the UK). Some reject lockdowns and masks as infringements on their liberty, while others want the government to be stricter; and some believe the whole pandemic is a plot.
Despite all of this, the famously establishment FT, which has long treated the European alt-right with horror and contempt, polished off the article with a series of quotes from political experts warning that the outlook for Macron isn't all that bleak, and that he would still likely win re-election because of the lack of options (text: the FT):
Other analysts, supported by several recent opinion polls, agreed that opposition parties were also not having a “good” coronavirus crisis, especially the Socialist party and the centre-right Les Républicains whose voters were lured en masse by Macron’s “neither right, nor left” campaign four years ago. Party leaders were struggling to gain traction for next year’s election when so much news coverage and public debate remained focused on the pandemic. “People say no one would necessarily do better than Macron — or worse,” said Chloé Morin, an analyst at Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank. “Nobody really knows what should be done or shouldn’t be done . . . Covid has acted as a way of freezing the political landscape.”
“Radical positions going from the extreme left to the extreme right are not always along the same lines,” said Martin. “He [Macron] is winning it — not well, and the situation is bad — but he’s not losing.”
“I don’t think Macron is damaged politically so far, at least no more than he was before. But this ‘hyper-presidency’ is not a good way to deal with pandemics,” said Martigny.
“Nowadays one has the feeling that everything derives from the president . . . It’s good when you have to take quick decisions in the short term, but not when the pandemic lasts more than a year and people are starting to get tired and angry.”
In summary, by the time all of this is over, the French people will forget their grievances and line up to hand the famously unpopular president another term. After all, what's the alternative? Actually electing Marine Le Pen?
Brussels wouldn't be too thrilled with that.