Twelve months from now, the voters of France will be preparing to cast their ballots in the first round of voting in their presidential election. And everything that is being done in France now, even as it battles a third wave of coronavirus, is focused not on the pandemic but on politics — and positioning President Emmanuel Macron for that ballot.
The exact dates haven’t been set yet, but the first round of balloting takes place between April 8 and 23, with the second round of ballot two weeks after.
The pandemic, of course, will overshadow that presidential election, just as it will be a determining factor in national elections until the middle of this decade. How did governments do, how did they respond, and how are economies recovering from Covid-19 — or are managing its effects — will all be the questions of voters’ minds when they head to cast votes.
Gravest public health emergency
Naturally, no one saw the events of these past 14 months coming as governments the world over focused their attention on the greatest crisis since the end of the Second World War and the gravest public health emergency in more than a century.
And when it came to shutting down France a year ago and imposing a tough lockdown — French police were criticised for being a little too energetic in using drones and other surveillance techniques to make sure people were staying within the confines of their homes — Macron did win plaudits for his firm actions and decisive leadership.
But that was then — and fast forward a year later, the French, as with most people living under lockdown restrictions in Europe — have had enough, and just want jabs in their arms so they can get on with living life under reasonably normal circumstances.
But the vaccine roll-out programme in France hasn’t gone well — and the president is eager to ensure that blame for that falls elsewhere. And Macron is equally determined that there won’t be a third national lockdown — even if Paris and a number of other centres have restrictions and curfews imposed as temporary anti-Covid measures.
“We weren’t fast enough, strong enough on it,” Macron said in a rare interview this week admitting vaccination failures. “We didn’t shoot for the stars as much as others. I think that should be a lesson for all of us. We were wrong to lack ambition, to lack the madness, to say, ‘It’s possible, let’s do it’,” he said.
What’s galling for the French is that they look across the English Channel and see more than half of British adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine while nearly four million have both doses.
Marcon has declared rolling out the vaccine as a national priority — about 10 per cent of French adults have been jabbed once.
Under “lockdown lite” rules, outdoor social gatherings of more than six people are illegal and in areas under stricter conditions — Greater Paris and Nice — residents must download and complete a government form explaining why they’re leaving their home. French police are enforcing the rules strictly on orders from Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.
On Monday, the number of Covid patients in intensive care beds across France topped highs seen in the first wave last spring when the initial lockdown was imposed, and higher than in November when Macron ordered a second national lockdown. He is determined that now, with the vaccine programme being stepped up and with the UK-mutant variant responsible for most cases of Covid, he won’t be ordering a third full lockdown.
In March, frustrated Dutch residents took to the streets to violently protest more coronavirus restrictions. A third lockdown in France could equally produce the same response from a French citizenry not unused to taking to the streets. That potential scenario is one Macron and his inner circle are eager to avoid — which is why in part the restrictions are being imposed region by region.
It’s a gamble that balanced public health needs against his stated intent of avoiding a third lockdown — and if that were to happen, Macron’s re-election hopes next year could very well suffer a setback with significant ramifications at the ballot box.
His thinking is that if France could avoid a third large-scale lockdown, Marcon could give the economy a chance to recover from a deep slowdown that, some in his circle felt, could soon replace the virus as the biggest challenge of his presidency.
The final bill for the coronavirus crisis has yet to be tallied, but it is already daunting.
Back to pre-pandemic levels
The Eurozone will only get back to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity in 2022, lagging behind the United States and Japan which will reach that mark already this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Macron’s government is targeting 6 per cent economic growth in 2021 — a target that is blown out of the water if there is another lockdown.
In the coming months, Macron’s standing in Europe will grow significantly. After two decades leading Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has become the de facto leader of Europe, capable of keeping most EU members in line most of the time, and certainly willing to confront other world leaders if and when push comes to shove.
But Merkel is stepping aside, and come September, Macron will effectively become the voice and face of Europe. That alone will improve his re-election chances. Covid, however, has not left the Chancellor unscathed.
Rare indeed it is for Merkel to admit a political misstep, yet that is what she did last week as she reversed course on ordering a temporary shutdown over the Easter holidays across Germany. If someone of her stature can get it wrong on Covid, then Macron is only too aware of the fallout for his administration too.
There is a fine line when it comes to leadership. Too much, and the blame lies at Macron’s feet. Too little, and the blame lies at his feet. Better now to tread very gently indeed.