Schools reopened in France this week. It was the first step toward lifting a third lockdown that will bring epidemiological risks as well as ratchet up political pressure on President Emmanuel Macron, who’s fighting for re-election next year.
Macron’s entourage refuses to call the gradual reopening a “gamble,” even if that’s what it feels like with hospitals still under pressure. After dithering for months over whether to lock down again, the government is reluctant to get people’s hopes up too high that outdoor bar and restaurant service can start up in May.
If that isn’t possible, it will become painfully clear just how slow France’s vaccine campaign was initially, while severely testing public acceptance of the web of restrictions that have been imposed, from outdoor mask-wearing to curfews.
Added urgency comes from Macron’s far-right foe Marine Le Pen, who regularly taunts France’s virus setbacks as “failure.” COVID-19 stopped Macron’s popularity from falling through the floor and muted his opponents, but that early advantage is at risk of being chipped away in this pandemic phase.
One Ipsos poll earlier this month put him neck-and-neck with Le Pen at around 25% of the vote. Because of France’s two-round election system, the 43-year-old president would still win a second-round runoff, but with a less convincing lead than in 2017.
Macron’s voter base of affluent urban white-collar workers still supports him — and few believe Le Pen, 52, would have handled the pandemic better — but his push for economic reform and European integration no longer resonates.
COVID-19 has made the already statist French yearn for more government intervention and national retrenchment: 85% of people are willing to pay more for goods made in France, 57% see taxing the wealthy and corporations as the best response to inequality and 54% oppose more immigration, according to an Ipsos poll this month. Macron’s catchphrase of a “Europe that protects” is a turnoff, with most rating the European Union’s pandemic strategy a failure.
That’s created an opening for Le Pen, who’s desperate to prove she’s a genuine contender beyond her base of blue-collar and rural workers. She’s ditched unpopular economic ideas like leaving the euro or the EU, while focusing on fighting terrorism, reducing immigration and alleviating the pain of small businesses groaning under lockdown.
Her new policies have yet to be fleshed out, but her opportunistic talking points include a referendum on immigration, a “counter-referendum” on the environment and authoritarian laws to defend secularism.
While Le Pen has yet to shake the fears most voters attach to her candidacy, her campaign has achieved a creeping normalization for her party, as a “demonization” index tracking public perceptions by the Fondation Jean Jaures think tank suggests.
Right-wing politicians have increasingly flirted with Le Pen-style policies, while the left — dominated by the fiery populism of Jean-Luc Melenchon — acknowledges she’s not the same threat as her father Jean-Marie, famous for calling the Holocaust a “detail” of history. His National Front party made the runoff in 2002 against Jacques Chirac, but it was Marine Le Pen’s version, recently rebranded National Rally, that earned a record 10.6 million votes in 2017.
A lot has changed in two decades. The Le Pen name is now a predictable force in every election.
Under pressure to appeal to a broader crowd, Macron is also seeking reinvention. He is tacking right, promising to hire 10,000 more police, pass new anti-terrorism laws and crack down on Islamist “separatism.” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has so enthusiastically aped predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s penchant for pinching far-right talking points that he recently called Marine Le Pen “soft.” Macron’s economic agenda, which once triggered Yellow Vest street protests, is on ice.
The risk for Macron, a former banker and Socialist minister, is that he’s being pulled onto terrain where he’s not at ease and, in some cases issues that he’s earlier rejected, such as further restrictions on wearing of the Muslim veil recently passed by the French Senate. These tactics don’t always work as intended: Sarkozy failed to get re-elected in 2012 after playing up security fears. For Macron, the discourse is light years away from what made him president.
The best defense against Le Pen would be to manage COVID-19 better from here on out. The building blocks are there, with vaccinations picking up pace and the European Recovery Fund due to bear fruit by next year. If the economy does better, it will be to Macron’s benefit.
It would help to emulate the idealism on display in the U.S. with Joe Biden’s New Deal or in Italy with Mario Draghi’s unity government. Job security, climate change and public health are high on the list of voter preoccupations, and require bigger visions than Le Pen’s.
If voters have high confidence in Macron’s ability to support businesses in trouble, as shown in a recent Ifop poll, it’s because of a “whatever it takes” mentality: France’s budget deficit is at its highest since 1949 and its public debt is over 100% of GDP.
These are early days in the election cycle and the likelihood of Le Pen becoming president is still low. But with political risk clearly adding to pandemic pressure, the time to act is now. As gloomy as the polls are, a more optimistic vision for France might go further than people think.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France.
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