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: France has two presidents – one is confident, the other weak and directionless

France has two Emmanuel Macrons: one is strangely depressed and directionless, the other confident and clear, writes John Lichfield. But which one will emerge in his second term as president?

OPINION: France has two presidents - one is confident, the other weak and directionless

There is a global Emmanuel Macron, confident and clear; and then there is a domestic Emmanuel Macron, who sometimes appears petulant and indecisive.

Global Macron is admired by many people outside France for his eloquence and his intelligence. He is also mocked and feared by some people abroad (especially in the Brexit camp in Britain) for his alleged pretentiousness and arrogance (in other words for his eloquence and intelligence).

For Global Macron, it has been a good couple of weeks. 

His speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was the best given by any world leader.

He placed the Ukraine war in a sweeping, global and historical context, lambasting allegedly “neutral” countries for failing to stand up for the core UN principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “fake” non-aligned countries were, he said, betraying not just the values of the UN but their own interests.

Macron has also been word perfect in his tributes to the Queen.

He obtained little credit for that fact from the hardest-line,  professional Macron-haters in the UK media. They preferred to concentrate on the fact that he wore posh trainers during an informal visit last weekend to the enormous queues of people waiting to file past Her Majesty’s coffin in Westminster.

King Charles has, however, seized on this opportunity to improve relations between France and Britain which Liz Truss had ignored. After a dinner with Macron in London last Sunday, the new king is reliably reported to have decided that his first state visit next year should be to France.

So much for the global Macron.

The other Macron, the domestic president, is newly re-elected but strangely weak and directionless.

His popularity in opinion polls is fading. He seems unable to come to terms with his loss of his parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June. He has yet to give a clear road-map for his second term to his newly renamed Renaissance party and their centrist allies.

(REMEMBER: You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the crisis on the French left and the mixed fortunes of Emmanuel Macron in the latest episode of our Talking France podcast below)

He has alternated in recent weeks between Blood, Sweat and Tears warnings to the French people that they face a cold and difficult winter and a generous (but reluctant) decision to extend domestic energy subsidies for another full year.

He has alarmed some of his own allies by raising the possibility that he might use his emergency constitutional powers to push pension reform through a divided National Assembly.

At the same time, he has pressed ahead with his vague plan for a grandiloquently-named Conseil national de la Refondation (National refoundation council). This body is supposed to find common ground between Left and Right, unions and bosses, to “refound” the French welfare state created just after the 1939-45 war.

On the one hand,  Macron says that he wants to find a new social consensus for the 21st century. On the other hand, he says that he wants to charge, without negotiation, into the social and political minefield of pension reform.

In a briefing with journalists earlier this month, the President suggested that he could avoid a lengthy negotiation with unions and the parliament to increase the standard French retirement age (now in theory 62). Changes in system could be tacked onto the annual social security budget next month and then pushed through the Assembly, in effect, by decree.

This week, the government back-pedalled. No decision has yet been taken, they say. One of Macron’s principal allies, the veteran centrist leader, François Bayrou, warned that any attempt to impose such a transformation on French lives by force would be a calamity.

How can we explain the two Macrons?

Partly, they reflect the constitutional powers given to French presidents. On international affairs and European affair, Macron can go largely his own way. On domestic policy, if he has no majority in parliament, his powers are limited.

I believe, however, that the problem runs deeper. There have been reports for months that Macron suffered after his re-election in April from a “drop in energy” or a period of depression.

The second half of his first term had been brutally occupied with non-stop management of the Covid and Ukraine crises. His attempts at mediating with Vladimir Putin had been a discouraging failure.

After his victory over Marine Le Pen, Macron drifted for weeks, delaying his decisions on a new Prime Minister and a new government. He was strangely absent from the parliamentary campaign in June (well below the limits imposed by his position as head of state).

Macron’s distraction contributed to his failure to win a new parliamentary majority; his lack of a majority has, I believe, compounded his mood of indecision and depression.

What to do with five years of a second term? Should he accept that his only role is now crisis-management? After all there are crises enough to manage.

Is the career of the self-proclaimed revolutionary of 2017 finished at the age of 44?  He cannot run again in 2027. He faces the prospect of five years of managerialism and drift while attention switches to his possible successors, from Edouard Philippe in the centre to Marine Le Pen on the Far Right.

“Macron is a magician who has lost his wand,” says one pro-Macron parliamentarian. “He’s still searching  for a way forward, a sense of direction. In short, he has the blues.”

By comparison with French politics, international crises are simple. Macron has clear ideas about the place of France and Europe in the world. He can express himself, both off the cuff and in set-piece speeches, with elegance and intelligence.

Macron has had no other position in elected politics than President of the Republic. He has no background as local or parliamentary politician. The prospect of five years of grinding negotiation to achieve quarter-baked reforms is, I believe, appalling to him.

Hence, his domestic zig-zagging.

He faces three choices in the next few months. He can accept a role as a manager of crises and minimal reforms; he can risk a Yellow Vest-type revolt by using, maybe abusing, his limited constitutional powers to impose change.

Or he can hope for an opportunity in the first half of next year to call a new parliamentary election.

Which way will he go? I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Emmanuel Macron.