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: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

The French President's new plan for a green-ish future reveals the ecological conundrum France faces and that Macron is rightly worried of the danger of pushing voters towards Marine le Pen, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

President Emmanuel Macron’s much delayed statement on Monday on planning for an ecologically-friendly 21st century was a curious mixture of courage and evasion.

In comparison with the UK government’s recent lurch towards climate scepticism-lite, Macron boldly confronted the threats, challenges and opportunities of the next decade.

READ MORE: Heat pumps and suburban trains: What’s Macron’s climate plan for France?

In comparison to a rupture with the past demanded by green activists – and some in his own government – Macron was cautious and vague.

There would, he said, be no refuge in the climate “denialism”, increasingly promoted by the Right and Far Right. Nor would there be the “cure” (shock-treatment) of reduced economic activity, as prescribed by the Greens.

Instead, Macron said, there would be a “French-style ecology”, which would increase “sovereignty”, “control” and “prosperity”.

France would produce a million electric cars in the next three years. State subsidies to allow poorer motorists to lease electric cars for €100 a month will be announced in November. The government would give €700 million towards the €10 billion cost of building or extending new, fast, commuter train networks in 13 French conurbations.

French carbon emissions would be reduced by five percent a year to reach the target of 270m tonnes by 2030 – half what the country produced in 1990.

To achieve this goal, Macron said, there would need to be a “policy of a general change in behaviour.”  

But he said there would be no question of abandoning or punishing modest households or farmers or people in rural areas dependent on cars or banning household gas boilers. He made no mention of higher taxes on flying or a 110 kph speed limit on motorways – measures to force “changes in behaviour” proposed by moderate climate activists and some voices within government.

This was finally a very political statement – and maybe rightly so. It was a recognition that there is growing risk that the case for radical climate action is being lost on the right and far right of European politics, in the UK, in the Netherlands, in Germany and potentially in France.

Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National sees in a cynical downplaying of climate change a big vote winner – bigger possibly than immigration – in rural and outer-suburban France. Mathilde Androuët, the Rassemblement National spokeswoman on ecology, says that Macron angers the struggling middle classes every time that he mentions the “green transition”.

“All of that stuff is seen as a fad of the elite by the people who will bear the burden of change,” she said. “Don’t forget that the Gilets Jaunes movement began with a tax on petrol and diesel prices.”

Macron has not forgotten the Gilets Jaunes. They were absent but ever-present in his speech on Monday.

The president faced a double or triple conundrum. Despite a burning hot summer (literally in some places), popular opinion is more concerned at present with inflation than with climate change – “the end of the week, rather than the end of the world”.

Macron needs to spend state money to soften the impact of inflation. He needs to spend more state money to “accompany” (as he puts it) carbon-reduction plans in household heating and transport.

He is also trying to reduce France’s budget deficit. The sums do not easily add up.

Macron chose to present the conundrum as a great opportunity – a chance for France to rebuild its industrial base by investing in electric cars and batteries and heat-pumps, to clean the air in cities and to boost the economy by reducing imports of fossil fuels.

“Our dependance on fossil energy costs us €120 billion a year—that’s the cost of our dependance”, he said. Reducing fossil fuel use to 40 percent by 2030 will create a “value-added ecology” and a country that is more “sovereign” and takes back “control”.

The repeated use of right-wing buzz-words was deliberate. It is a way of confronting the Right and Far Right with their own incoherence on climate policy.

But the speech was meant to jolt as well as reassure public opinion. That balance was lost. Cutting carbon emissions by 5 percent a year for seven years will be painful; Macron admitted as much and tried to conceal it at the same time.

The president has also been forced by bad memories of the Gilets Jaunes into incoherences of his own. He had announced the previous evening that a €100 a year state subsidy for poorer car users would be restored, weeks after his government said that such hand-outs must end.

Many of the president’s announcements on Monday were not new. The €100 a month lease for electric cars was in his campaign platform last year. The “new” urban train networks were announced in the spring and already exist in some cities.

The plan has now been extended to 13 conurbations – almost every large metropolitan area in France. But the government’s €700million is only a fraction of the €10billion needed.

Compared to the muddle on climate policy in some neighbouring countries (Germany as well as the UK), there was much to welcome in Macron’s speech. Offering a positive case for climate change action makes ecological as well as political sense.

Hard choices remain hard choices all the same. It remains to be seen whether in the remaining four years of the Macron era, the balance will be long-term ecological or short-term political.