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Macron vs Omicron: leader wary of French voters’ pandemic fatigue

Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has put him in a strong position to win a second term as France’s president — but supporters worry that he will lose his lead as infections with the Omicron variant reach a peak and the public grow weary of the two-year-old crisis. 

“We are at the tipping point where people are now sick of restrictions. Things could go badly for him,” said one French industrialist who supported Macron in 2017 and wants him to win again in the April election. “They think the situation no longer merits the restrictions.”

With Macron preparing to officially declare himself a candidate for re-election, his government is struggling to limit the intense pressure on hospitals from Covid patients, while meeting popular demands to ease the restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus. 

Prime minister Jean Castex on Thursday announced that some Covid rules would be relaxed next month, even though new confirmed infections are running at more than 400,000 a day, according to health ministry data. 

Until recently, voters broadly backed Macron’s handling of the pandemic. The coronavirus emergency in early 2020 shunted aside the anti-government “gilets jaunes” protests that had shaken his presidency. After early missteps on the availability of masks and tests, the president was praised for a financial aid programme for workers and businesses and the decision to keep schools open after the first wave.

His bet last summer to push vaccination via a “health pass”, with proof of immunisation or a recent negative Covid-19 test required to access public venues, also paid off. It encouraged millions more to accept the jab, saving 4,000 lives and €6bn in economic activity, according to a study by researchers at Bruegel and the French Council of Economic Analysis. 

A board outside a Nice restaurant asks customers to have their vaccine passes ready as they enter © Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The government has since converted the permit into a “vaccine pass”, with a negative test no longer accepted, and following Macron’s declaration this month that he wanted to “piss off the unvaccinated”, a further 1m people have taken their first jabs. 

That deliberately provocative comment, however, prompted critics to revive accusations that Macron is arrogant and dismissive of the concerns of ordinary people. 

The havoc that Omicron has played with France’s school system has added to public discontent, with teachers and parents complaining about complex rules on testing and isolation. As Macron presented his vision for the future of the EU in a speech in Strasbourg this week, his government was trying to calm the anger, handing out medical-grade masks and easing the testing and quarantine regime.

A protest by teachers’ unions on Thursday followed a strike last week that saw some 80,000 gather at nationwide rallies. Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer was forced to apologise for taking a holiday in Ibiza in late December — even though he broke no rules — after critics said his actions were proof of the government’s chaotic handling of school safety protocols as pupils returned in January.

A recent Ifop opinion poll showed public confidence in the government’s ability to fight the pandemic has dropped by nine percentage points to 41 per cent since early December. Macron’s popularity overall has dropped by four points since November, with 40 per cent having a favourable view of his record, according to a January 12 poll from Ipsos.

French school pupils join a rally called by teachers’ unions to protest against the impact of Omicron rules on education
French school pupils join a rally called by teachers’ unions to protest against the impact of Omicron rules on education © Clement Mahoudeau/AFP /Getty Images

“The return to schooling after the Christmas holidays was a mess and irritated lots of people — all this on top of the general exhaustion of the health crisis,” said political analyst Chloé Morin.

But analysts say the political impact of Omicron is hard to predict. Infections and hospitalisations are still rising but daily intensive care admissions were down roughly 6 per cent last week compared with the previous week.

“In the Macron camp, they are hoping that in three weeks or so, the current wave will be over and people will be in a better mood, and as spring arrives they will forget all this,” said Morin. “But it’s also possible that there is another twist or another variant that wrecks things again.”

Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice, said Macron’s chances “will depend on how people react to Omicron and on whether the government changes the protocols for dealing with the pandemic. If they continue with very restrictive policies, it might hit them in the end”.

Omicron has also pulled attention away from issues such as immigration and crime that had dominated debate since last summer. Valérie Pécresse, presidential candidate for the conservative Les Républicains, and the two far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, have struggled to shift the agenda back on to their favoured turf.

Macron is polling at about 25 per cent of first-round voting intentions, compared with 18 per cent for Le Pen, 16 per cent for Pécresse and 11.5 per cent for Zemmour, according to recent Ifop surveys.

Even if Covid weariness fails to erode Macron’s advantage in the coming weeks, he faces other headwinds. 

The issue that triggered the gilets jaunes protests back in 2018 — the cost of vehicle fuel — has returned to haunt the government as rising oil prices send the cost of fuel to the highest level in more than a decade. Meanwhile, a gas shortage across Europe has increased the cost of home heating.

Macron has responded to voter concerns by announcing extra spending on law enforcement and capping the rise in household electricity bills this year at 4 per cent by raiding the revenues of state-controlled energy group EDF.

He is also trying to keep Pécresse — shown by polls to be his most dangerous rival if they both reach the second round — off-balance by highlighting the differences among her LR supporters over everything from vaccine mandates to France’s role in the EU.

The volatility has left even seasoned political observers wary of predicting Macron’s chances. “He is ahead in the polls,” said Morin, “but not unassailable”.

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