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POLITICS

ANALYSIS: Was Macron’s surprise lockdown decision due to fear of Le Pen in the polls?

The pandemic will shape the result of the French Presidential election next year and the looming vote may already be influencing President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the pandemic, writes John Lichfield.

ANALYSIS: Was Macron's surprise lockdown decision due to fear of Le Pen in the polls?
President Emmanuel Macron's advisers say he never reads polls, but don't all politicians say that? Photo: AFP

The first round of the election is just over 14 months away. Much can happen between now and then. But we are already in what I would call the magnetic zone or gravitational pull of the two-round election in April and May 2022.

A series of opinion polls published in recent days may seem absurdly premature. Polls are never premature for political junkies or politicians. Some of the opinion surveys look bad for Macron; others look better.

Either way, they cast an interesting light – not entirely negative – on Macron’s hopes of re-election next Spring, despite the multiple crises of his presidency and despite the fact that no sitting French government has been endorsed by the electorate since 1979. (I will justify that startling claim later.)

President Macron has been looking rattled in recent days – not quite his confident and some would say over-confident self.

Reports of the meeting suggest that Macron pushed back against suggestions of a third lockdown. Photo: AFP

His decision (very much his decision) to refuse a third French Covid lockdown has startled and worried some of his most senior ministers. His misleading comments on the AstraZeneca vaccine – suggesting there is “evidence” that it is useless for the over-65’s when there is merely a shortage of trial evidence that it is useful – was an unusual gaffe for the young President.

In both these instances (which happened within a few hours of one another last Friday) Macron seemed to be thinking, at least partly, politically and electorally.

He wanted to show that he was shaping events – minimising Europe’s slow vaccine roll-out; dealing with the new Covid variants – not just submitting to them.

Macron’s intended narrative for the 2022 elections was: “There has been a big fall in French unemployment thanks to my structural reforms”. That claim has been destroyed by Covid-19.

 His second intended narrative – a boom in France’s mood and economy post-pandemic thanks to a €150bn relaunch programme – has been wrecked by the second wave of the virius. A third wave, generated by the faster-moving British variant of Covid-19, now threatens.

The President needs a new narrative – ideally with himself in the starring role.

His decision last week to reject or at least postpone a third French lockdown was a huge gamble. There may have been good reasons to spare a depressed nation a further “confinement” but there were also good reasons to take preventative action against the British and other variants.

IN NUMBERS Is the latest Covid data good enough to avoid a third lockdown?

 

Accounts of the meeting in which the decision was taken suggest Macron was influenced, at least in part, by a desire to show he was in charge and that France, under his leadership, could succeed in avoiding a third lockdown where most other European countries had failed.

That is what I mean by the magnetic zone or gravitational pull of April/ May 2022

How much has Macron’s mood been influenced by opinion polls? If you ask people close to Macron they say that he pays no attention to them. But politicians always say that.

There have been several interesting polls in the last two weeks. Those negative to Macron have been blown up in the Eurosceptic part of the UK media. The more positive ones have been ignored.

As background, it should be recalled that Macron’s monthly approval ratings are running in the late 30s and low 40s – a high figure for French president entering the last full year of his mandate.

One week ago a Harris poll suggested that the far right leader Marine Le Pen would come just ahead of Macron in the first round of next year’s election and just behind him – 52 percent to 48 percent – in the two candidate run-off.

Harris did not publish the second round poll, apparently because they were uncertain about its accuracy. Their findings suggested that a large chunk of French left-wing voters would abstain in May 2022, refusing to vote for Macron and refusing to block Le Pen.

The poll set alarm bells ringing – in the Elysée as much as anywhere else. If Le Pen could be that close, where could she be after another year of viral economic disruption and popular depression?

Yesterday, Ipsos produced another 2022 poll with very different results.

The first round poll put Macron ahead with 27 percent (three points up on his actual first round score in 2017). Le Pen was second on 25 percent (4 points up on 2017). Xavier Bertrand, the centre-right independent President of Hauts-de-France, the north east region, came third with 14.5 percent.

Ipsos also did a second-round poll. It showed Macron well ahead of Le Pen on 56 percent to 44 percent, a score less crushing than his 66-34 victory in 2017 but far ahead of the Harris poll and slightly better than one random poll taken last year (55-45).

So sighs of relief in the Elysée? Maybe. Certainly no jubilant headlines in the British Daily Mail or Express newspapers.

One final poll to consider, by Ipsos-Sopra Steria for France Info and l'Obs yesterday.

Asked who would “make the best president, 38 percent chose Macron, 30 percent Le Pen and 29 percent Xavier Bertrand. The rest – and especially all left-wing contenders – were nowhere.

It has long been my view that Le Pen will not win in 2022 but Macron could lose.

Xavier Bertrand – the one to watch for the 2022 election? Photo: AFP

He could be pushed out of the second round by a strong centre-right candidate. No such candidate has emerged – until now. It’s early days but Xavier Bertrand, moderate, competent, uninspiring – is emerging as the man to watch.

Can Macron still win? Yes, but he will be badly damaged if his gamble against a third lockdown last week proves to have been a costly error.

The President may be running against relatively weak opposition but he is also running against events and against history.

As I said at the start, you have to go back to 1979 to find a French election in which the government in de facto power – ie both the Prime Minister and President – were kept in office by the electorate.

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OPINION &ANALYSIS

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

It's another hot summer in France and there's another predictable uproar over the Burkini. If France wants to take its place in a multicultural world then it must make room for all its citizens, writes civil liberties expert Rim-Sarah Alouane.

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

France’s compulsive obsession with the behaviour and dress of its Muslim citizens has taken on worrying proportions, and has turned over the years into a form of mass hysteria. The “burkini affair” is one of many examples.

The burkini is a two-piece full body swimsuit with sleeves, long legs and a headgear. This type of swimming-suit made of Lycra® leaves the face, feet and hands uncovered. It was invented in 2003 by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who wanted to develop sporting attire for Muslim women that would allow them to take part in sports activities while accommodating their religious beliefs. While the burkini was first designed for Muslim women, it has also been adopted by many non-Muslim women who wish to cover their bodies for various reasons.

The controversy escalated in 2016, when the French Council of State – France’s highest administrative court – overturned a series of local initiatives to ban the use of burkinis on public beaches. These bans were implemented in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment by local officials who argued that such attire disturbed the public order. The Council saw no such disturbance and argued that it was an infringement on constitutionally protected civil liberties. This, however, did not end the controversy.

READ ALSO: Why is France’s interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

In response, the political establishment from across the political spectrum tried to find legal loopholes to circumvent the ruling, turning their attention to municipal swimming pools where they could modify the rules governing public services.

A recent controversy involved the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who authorized the wearing of the burkini (as well as topless swimsuits) in municipal swimming pools, triggering an avalanche of criticism. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Mr Piolle of entertaining “communitarian provocation” and that authorizing the wearing of the burkini in public swimming pools was contrary to France’s values. Once again, French Muslim women found themselves stigmatised and targeted.

They were accused of being a conduit for Islamist extremism, separatism, patriarchy, and violating the principle of laïcité. This discourse, like so much before it, happened without inviting Muslim women themselves to be a part of the conversation.

Modern interpretations of Laïcité – France’s unique way of managing church-state relations – have become an ideological tool for political identity, a factor of division, and the exclusion of French Muslims from the societies in which they live. How did we get here?

The meaning of the term “laïcité” has become obscured by the fact that its interpretations are diverse and sometimes contradictory.

Its current usage betrays the very liberal intention of the 1905 law on “Separation of Church and State”, the ruling which forms the foundation of the principle. 

Laïcité once defined the territories in which the State is sovereign and religious belief is left at the door. It generates obligations for the state to remain neutral and guarantee the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of its citizens, within the limits of public order.

A significant misinterpretation of the 1905 law persists to this day. The law does not require religious belief or visible signs thereof to be kept in the home. However, politicians and pundits on a daily basis cite the law in their efforts to erase any religious visibility (especially Islam) in the public square.

Any attempt to show visible attributes of faith outside the home are deemed to be a threat to a commonly-held belief that France’s citizens should conform to an imaginary notion of what it means to be French. This very illiberal interpretation of laïcité and religious neutrality goes against the essence of the Law of 1905.

As France continues to mature as a country made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, vulnerable communities have begun to advocate for their rights to be treated as equals with their fellow French citizens without giving up their personal beliefs and customs.

Critics of the clothing choices of Muslim women have forgotten the fundamental freedoms of the Declaration of  the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, often seeking to free Muslim women from their religion. Even when Muslim women dare to defend their basic rights, they are often accused of being radicalised.

A good Muslim woman is a quiet invisible woman. The irony is that many Muslim women who wear their burkinis to swimming pools or wear headscarves during sports competitions actually go against rigorous interpretations of Islam. In order to justify burkini bans, politicians or commentators will often point to Muslim-majority countries who have similar prohibitions, as if authoritarian states were a role model for France to follow.

Muslim women are perceived as a threat because they shake France’s status quo. The illusion of France being a colour-blind nation has been broken. If France really believes that multicultural communities threaten the character of the country, it must not believe that its culture – one that the entire world looks up to – is actually that strong.

But if France is to take its place in a multicultural world, it needs to come to terms with how vulnerable communities fit within the notion of French identity and make room for all its citizens.

Rim-Sarah Alouane is a doctoral candidate and a researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole in France. Her research focuses on civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in Europe and North America. She tweets @rimsarah
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