By Ollie Campbell
In the catch-22 situation created by the pandemic, the politics of the cautious seems to be more fruitful.
14 months before the 2017 French presidential election, not a single opinion poll of potential candidates even bothered to test the name Emmanuel Macron. The combination of weak party allegiances, a large distrust of the establishment, a very bold and innovative campaign, as well as a huge stroke of luck took the electoral novice from a nobody to the most powerful man in the whole of France, in record time. French politics has now turned towards the 2022 presidential contest, but still the polls and predictions are showing no obvious leader. As the outlines of a new campaigning period emerge, they present several new challenges to Macron as he attempts re-election.
Several new polls suggest that the 2022 election will likely be a run-off between the centre-left Macron and the nationalist Marine Le Pen. They also suggest a much closer race than that of 2017, when Macron won by 66% to 34%. The current Politico polls have proposed a first-round win by Le Pen, gaining 26% of the initial vote over Macron’s 24%. More importantly, Macron’s approval rating is not good and is not getting any better, with a disapproval rating of over 59%.
The French, who frequently feel despondent to their leaders even in good times, have given little credit to Macron’s attempts to stem the current Covid-19 pandemic. Many are becoming perturbed over the threat of a third lockdown, the reliability of the vaccines under the EU’s failing rollout system, the well-being of those in education and the struggles of those currently furloughed who hold up the economy, especially in the tourist industry.
Apprehension, along with disease control, has consequently created a politics fuelled by reassurance and caution. This contrasts Macron’s initial ideas of ‘declaring war on the virus’ and the promise to "do whatever it costs" to protect the lives and jobs of the French people. In fairness to Macron, his government continues to provide a very magnanimous furlough scheme for millions across France, as well as a series of loans and grants of various sizes to keep businesses afloat. The government is shielding its supermarkets from foreign predators, has raised health workers’ salaries and has ditched the controversial pension reform plans. Even though their vaccine rollout has been poor, ministers have justified it. French junior Minister for European Affairs, Clement Beaune, claims that the quick rollout by Britain carries ‘enormous risks.’
The pandemic does justify the prudence shown by the long, slow decision-making processes the French Government have demonstrated and mirrors the global responses. However, the big picture message works against the quick adaptation to societal change that Macron’s campaign was heavily based upon in 2017. The presidential campaign was based upon progression to free up the initiative and risk-taking with an attempt at rebuilding a modern system of legislation to encourage this. Macron’s obstinate, fast-paced side shaped his first year in office; reforms to the labour market, schools, training, the railways and taxes all occurring successively. The last year has crushed this part of Macron as it hasn’t been seen since Covid-19 arrived.
Macron has defended his stance in a meeting with foreign reporters, claiming that if he had not carried out his liberalising reforms before the pandemic, the country would be less well placed to finance protection today. The current recovery plan for France is based upon joint EU borrowing and Macron stated that his plan is to “build the future, and not from a perspective of protection.” But criticism still arises as caution outweighs courage.
The controversy poses challenges to France, a country of long conservatism with only a few large but short-term bursts of rebellion. Protectionism has formed a safe default mode for France which is a potentially hard mindset to change. It could be argued that all the rules created by overzealous bureaucrats during the pandemic - curfews, social distancing etc. - are unrightfully teaching people to unlearn what it means to be free.
At the current stage, Macron has lost his parliamentary majority due to a group of left-wing deputies quitting his party, and protectionist policies are the only thing offering the President any form of defence. A tough decision has to be made by Macron as he questions whether to lean left and gain back his previous votes or to keep to the centre as a way of taking votes off Le Pen. The polls are suggesting a very close race between Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, where every vote counts and Le Pen does not have to contend with the criticisms of how the pandemic was handled.
Macron has shown he will take risks by leaving schools open and refusing to go straight into a third lockdown - against the advice of a range of scientists and ministers. However, these are uncertain times, with no credible alternative candidate having made their political stance obvious. The election will be closely observed as a possible repeat of 2017 may occur, where an overlooked outsider reigns supreme.