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Coronavirus crisis throws a lifeline to Macron’s troubled presidency

French President Emmanuel Macron wears a face mask during his visit to the military field hospital outside the Emile Muller Hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, March 25, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron wears a face mask during his visit to the military field hospital outside the Emile Muller Hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, March 25, 2020. © REUTERS

While the coronavirus epidemic rages in France and around the world, President Emmanuel Macron’s poll ratings have jumped to a two-year high. Analysts say that, while his leadership style played badly during the Yellow Vest protests and pensions strikes, it has been an asset during the current crisis.

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A series of polls over recent weeks has shown that Macron is enjoying a popularity bump amid the coronavirus crisis. In late March, a Harris Interactive survey found that 51 percent of French people “have confidence” in Macron – a 13-point increase on the previous month. It is the first time he has enjoyed a majority approval rating since January 2018.

Other pollsters have noted similar upticks in his popularity, with Ipsos showing him up by 14 points and Ifop up by 11.

France’s coronavirus death toll stands at more than 7,500 and the number of confirmed cases at more than 68,600, making it Europe’s third-worst-affected nation behind Italy and Spain. The country has been under lockdown since March 17 – a situation that will last until April 15 at the very least, with people allowed to leave their homes only to buy necessities, go to work, exercise or seek medical care.

‘Astonishing popularity surge’

Like many other world leaders, Macron has not shied away from massive state intervention in the economy to manage the crisis. He announced plans to quickly ramp up production of face masks and ventilators to address shortfalls, while his government will disburse around €300 million to businesses affected by the virus – warning that it “won’t tolerate” such companies rewarding shareholders with dividends this year – and has responded to the threat of food shortages by exhorting supermarkets to “stock French products”.

The president has also taken a firm stance in his televised addresses. In his speech announcing the lockdown on March 16, he took pains to stress the gravity of the situation, repeating the refrain, “We are at war” and admonishing people who disregarded a previous request for social distancing: “We saw people gather in parks, crowded markets, restaurants and bars who did not follow the instructions ... Not only are you not protecting yourself, but you are not protecting others.”

The speech got a record 35 million audience as more than half of the French population tuned in.       

For many, this approach has bolstered Macron’s credentials as an efficient manager who knows what he is doing, said Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University. The president is seeing an “astonishing popularity surge” because “this sort of crisis allows the technocrat to step in and take tough decisions – the French state is, after all, built for just such a situation and most people understand the need for massive intervention”.

‘Symbol of an out-of-touch elite’

Macron argued that the French head of state should adopt an imposing style long before he announced sweeping restrictions on daily life in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Ever since its foundation in 1958 by the famously imperious Charles de Gaulle amid the chaos of the Algerian War, France’s Fifth Republic has been characterised by a powerful presidency, sometimes described as a republican monarchy. Macron put his own distinctive stamp on this concept. After winning the Élysée Palace in the 2017 elections, he declared that France needed a “Jupiterian” presidency – referring to Jupiter, the Roman king of gods.

To many critics, this leadership style has seemed haughty, fuelling the anger of the Yellow Vest protesters who first took France by storm in late 2018 and that of the unions opposed to Macron’s pension reforms, who shut down large parts of France last winter in the country’s longest strike since 1968.

Tellingly, a survey conducted by the Elabe pollsters on March 5 – before the widespread realisation that the coronavirus would soon upend people’s way of life – showed Macron’s approval rating had fallen by two points to a paltry 29 percent after he forced his pension bill through the National Assembly in late February by using Article 49.3. Arguably the Fifth Republic’s most controversial legal instrument, this constitutional clause allows the government to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote.

“A lot of people felt that using Article 49.3 was anti-democratic; a symbol of an out-of-touch elite,” said Andrew Smith, professor of French politics at the University of Chichester.

The far right is the ‘real opposition’

But by this point, many people will have “forgotten what Article 49.3 even meant”, Andrew Smith said. And in the current context, “the Jupiterian style is a real asset” because it “shows clear lines of command” and allows Macron to portray himself as an “effective leader”.

It may be difficult for the opposition parties to make traction amid the epidemic. The traditional parties of the right and left have been flagging and divided since Macron’s centrist upstart party, La République En Marche (The Republic on the move), captured the National Assembly with a landslide in the 2017 parliamentary elections.

“Most opinion polls for the 2022 presidential elections put far-right Marine Le Pen first in the first round, before losing to Macron in the second,” observed Paul Smith. “But do the French want that? Eighty percent say not.”

Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (the National Rally party, formerly the National Front) are the “real opposition”, Andrew Smith added. But the coronavirus crisis is pushing Macron towards a much more interventionist economic agenda that may deprive them of one of their key selling points. “Where [far-right] appeal has broadened is around re-centring the focus inwards in terms of development and investment, focusing on French towns and provinces,” he said. But since the coronavirus crisis, “there is a shift towards a more Keynesian focus, and that may rob them of the ability to make traction on these issues”.

Nevertheless, Macron’s predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande enjoyed similar boosts in the polls after the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 terror attacks, respectively. It was a temporary phenomenon for both. And while Hollande’s popularity surged as many French rallied around the flag after the Paris attacks, few would have predicted that his young economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, would later break with his mentor and take the presidency two years later.

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