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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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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.

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