1 September 2020

President Macron's Management Of The Coronavirus Crisis And His Political Future

"Next to Italy and Spain, France has been the Eurozone country worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with 29,000 deaths as of early June 2020. The number of seriously ill patients on ventilators never fell below 1,000 in France between mid-March and 9 June. The number of deaths is now falling, and the figure for those who died over the past 24 hours (23) is significantly lower than it has been in recent weeks."

Next to Italy and Spain, France has been the Eurozone country worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with 29,000 deaths1 as of early June 2020. The number of seriously ill patients on ventilators never fell below 1,000 in France between mid-March and 9 June. The number of deaths is now falling, and the figure for those who died over the past 24 hours (23) is significantly lower than it has been in recent weeks.2 On 11 May the country began to gradually relax its strict lockdown rules – the second reopening phase entered into force on 2 June – but the government has indicated that certain restrictions (largely concerned with mass transit and public assembly) will remain for a further four months. There will be no return, however, to the strict quarantine enforced over two months from the middle of March, which resulted in a severe economic downturn. The severity of the situation is shown by the unemployment figures, which have jumped by 7.1 per cent,3 while the country closed last year with an unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent.4

In light of the above, it is hardly surprising that, according to a recent survey, 79 per cent of French people5 view the economic crisis generated by the coronavirus as the greatest threat they currently face. However, the lack of popular confidence in the present government, and in the effectiveness of its measures, is illustrated by the fact that even before the pandemic, 58 per cent were similarly concerned about France’s economic situation. Their pessimism is justified, since in an international comparison of G7 countries, France sits second from bottom in terms of health and economic management, with only Japan scoring lower. Given that every second French citizen is or has been affected by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, and 70 per cent of those affected are from the poorest social stratum,6 the social fault lines caused by economic inequality have been further exacerbated. These issues were apparent, however, even before COVID-19 struck, when researchers found that only 13 per cent (now 12 per cent)7 believed that their children would have a better future than their own. In the short term, meanwhile, confidence in the Macron government is equally weak: when restrictions were lifted, only a third of the population trusted that the government was adequately prepared. This is far below the level of confidence expressed by the citizens of neighbouring countries: the German government and even the poorly performing Italian authorities both have levels of public satisfaction in their handling of the crisis which are 20–30 per cent higher than in France.

All this is compounded by the unmanaged migration situation and an inadequate, ill-equipped police force, with the direct consequence that law enforcement in certain Parisian banlieues has virtually ceased to exist. When the pandemic struck, this was manifested in inability of the authorities to police districts inhabited primarily by those of an immigrant background: though the Macron government theoretically imposed a €135 fine upon all those who violated lockdown rules, in many banlieues life went on as before, with scant regard for this or other laws. (Meanwhile, the fines imposed on young mothers going to the shop to buy nappies, or the parents who allowed their pre-teen son to let off steam by running around a little in front of their flat, did little to reassure those who still share the ideal of social justice promulgated by Pope Pious XI.)

 

INCREASING ATTACKS ON POLICE OFFICERS

 

The reputation of French law enforcement has hardly been helped by a spate of attacks upon their officers in recent years, whether at Viry-Chatillon, where a gang of twenty or so threw Molotov cocktails at police cars, or a Parisian metro station, where a Moroccan under psychiatric evaluation attacked police officers with a rusty knife (December 2019). All France mourned in the spring of 2018, when a gunman – likewise of Moroccan origin – killed three civilians and a gendarmerie officer who had voluntarily swapped places with a hostage, thereby sacrificing his own life.8 The perpetrator, who had previously sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, was known to the authorities, and had an S card,9 indicating that he was already known to be a danger to national security. Like the police, fire-fighters are also often subjected to attacks by criminal gangs in France, and on New Year’s Eve last year they suffered more attacks in a single day than over an average month. In protest, several hundred fire-fighters took to the streets of Strasbourg, in solidarity with colleagues who had been attacked.

These attacks on emergency personnel have prompted ever more politicians across France to demand that the state bolster the resources it allocates to law enforcement, ensuring that those tasked with defending national security and leading the fight against radicalisation are equipped to do so, and are empowered to enforce the law without fear or favour. The French police, gendarmerie and security forces are exhausted – a state of affairs articulated by both police unions and a Senate report. This year, Senator Nathalie Goulet, who represents the department of Orne and chairs the commission of inquiry set up to combat radicalisation, publicly condemned the serious flaws in the national security system (though she is a member of the UDI, a party broadly sympathetic to the government). Following the senator, we may also ask the same question: how long will the state leave exponents of the Salafist doctrine free to preach as they please, with the support of local municipalities?

 

SALAFISM AND ANTI-SEMITIC MURDERS,

 ISLAMIC RADICALISM SWEPT UNDER THE RUG

 

According to the ever-increasing number of radicalised individuals with second and third-generation immigrant backgrounds – preponderantly Muslim in religion – those who are to be trampled underfoot include not only the “infidels”, but also those of Jewish background. Surveys indicate that across Europe, anti-Semitism has surged to levels not seen since the Second World War, and the two countries topping this podium of shame are France and Belgium. In March of 2012, international public opinion was shocked by a murder committed outside the Oz ar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, and two years later a French jihadist who had returned from the war in Syria killed four people in an attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. This was the first terror attack on European soil claimed by the nascent Islamic State.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Jews were one of the principle targets of Islamist violence, and tragic proof of this came with the murder of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll. Knoll survived a Nazi raid in 1942, but could not escape Islamist hatred and violence – her killers were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This murder poured oil onto the fire lit a year before by the murder – also in the 11e arrondissement of Paris – of a woman of Jewish heritage. The liberal media and certain prominent philosophers, among them Bernard Henri-Levi, denied for as long as possible that the murder had been motivated by the victim’s religious background. Then, when it transpired that the perpetrator – a drug dealer of Malian background – had committed the murder while under the influence of mind-altering substances, he was quickly exonerated by left-liberal public opinion. Meanwhile, ever more people are daring to speak up, and declare that a quiet ethnic cleansing is under way in France.

But why does a part of France’s political elite consistently turn a blind eye in cases such as those outlined above? Why this political correctness, this continual habit of sweeping problems under the rug? More importantly, how long will it continue?

The left-liberal elite sees radicalisation and crimes committed in the name of Islam as manifestations of social rebellion, and something which is not polite to acknowledge, never mind discuss. Anti-Semitism, already latent in French society,10 has combined with the far left’s hostility towards both Israel and Jews in general, and has now found a way to launder its guilt, since those who commit anti-Semitic violence are declared the excluded victims of society. Their dismissive attitude can also be explained by the votes which Muslim citizens bring to left-liberal candidates.11

Accustomed as we are to the current political landscape, it is disorienting to read the words of Georges Marchais, the Communist candidate in the 1981 presidential election, who called for a complete ban on both legal and illegal immigration into France. Marchais argued that it was impossible to accept wave after wave of immigrants into France, even on purely economic grounds, since even without them, the state still had to provide for two million unemployed French citizens and immigrants.

 

GDP GROWTH NEGATIVE, SKYROCKETING PUBLIC DEBT

 

Thirty years on, Marchais’s words have taken on renewed relevance, especially given the economic chaos and social discontent caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The French statistics office (Insee) has been publishing quarterly economic reports since 1949, and over the intervening seven decades the economic indicators have rarely looked worse. The Fifth Republic has seen calamitous GDP figures in the past (-5.3 per cent in 1968, for instance) but a GDP growth rate of -5.8 per cent for the first quarter of 2020 surpasses even that. When it comes to total consumption, Insee has not produced a report offering such slim grounds for optimism since at least 1980. Figures for the first quarter of 2020 indicate a drop of some 17.9 per cent.12 Compare this to the start of the year, before the Coronavirus pandemic struck, when the French economy was forecast to be the most successful in the Eurozone, with a growth rate of 1.5 per cent. Bruno le Maire, the French Finance Minister, recently announced that the current projection was for an 11 per cent drop by the end of the year.13

The president of the French National Bank estimates that the country’s level of public debt could rise to 115 per cent of GDP by the time the financial crisis is over, due in part to excessive government spending, which has made it almost impossible to effectively tackle the public health emergency caused by COVID-19. The lack of masks and personal protective equipment, and the insufficient number of ventilators, revealed a failure to invest in healthcare resources, and largely determined the numbers, working conditions and manoeuvring room available to healthcare workers tackling the effects of the pandemic. The government attempted to assuage their desperation with reward vouchers of between €500 and €1,500 (depending on how badly a given region had been affected by the pandemic) but such giveaways could not save the lives of the doctors and nurses, nor did it make a career in medical care any more appealing to young people, in a country where 30 per cent of nurses drop out of the profession within five years of graduation. It is no surprise then that the French healthcare service has been grappling with a labour shortage for some time – a shortage made more visible by the current pandemic.

Rural healthcare workers who volunteered to staff city hospitals told the French press of the appalling conditions they found, and some even expressed surprise that anyone had survived. In many instances, patients were kept in rooms without any medical equipment, or in wards with nothing except a single thermometer and blood pressure meter, where no-one so much as dared dream of FFP-2 protective equipment. One patient, arriving at noon, was not seen by a medical professional until 7 p.m. When a doctor did at last come, he expressed surprise that the patient was still alive.

 

WEAK POPULARITY INDEX

 

Given these circumstances, it is easy to understand why the French do not express great confidence in their government, and particularly in their head of state, when it comes to the management of the current healthcare crisis.

According to the IFOP survey for May,14 the Prime Minister’s popularity has increased by just four per cent, following a 10 per cent increase the month before. Emmanuel Macron has preferred to use his chief deputy as a mouthpiece to inform the public about the failures and shortcomings of government policy, and it appears to have borne fruit: with 57 per cent approval, most surveys now put the grave and undemonstrative Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, in second place behind the former ecology minister, Nicolas Hulot.15 Philippe, the former mayor of Le Havre, is tasked with holding the front while the President, escaping his domestic political failures, attempts to assert himself on the European stage.

Emmanuel Macron has high hopes for the €750 billion EU recovery fund, and is convinced that it will strengthen both the competitiveness and the resilience of the European economy, as well as increasing investment – particularly important in the fields of digital transformation and ecological improvements, which have high research and development costs. Furthermore, together with his counterpart in Germany, the French head of state also views the strengthening of Europe’s “health sovereignty” as a key objective (even if he thinks little of national sovereignty). It is for precisely this reason that he has proposed a common European health strategy, arguing that lessons must be learned from the EU’s difficulties in combating the pandemic. Paris and Berlin have jointly proposed the creation of a shared strategic stockpile of pharmaceutical and medical supplies, and an increase in European research and development capabilities in the fields of vaccine and pharmaceutical development. Emmanuel Macron is thus attempting to assert himself on the European stage, and at the same time to limit the damage to his own country.

Economists are of the opinion that the key task of the government at this stage is to restore confidence, which will encourage people to go back to living and consuming, as well as persuading businesses to hire new and former staff, and make investments. The country could also use EU structural investment funds to accelerate and increase its production capacity. Macron aims to make France the leading car manufacturing country in Europe in the coming years, and expects one million new hybrid and electric vehicles to roll off the production lines in 2025. The government is confident of success in modernising production methods (automation, digitalisation, innovation) and hopes that even those industries worst hit by the current crisis, such as the car industry, aviation and tourism, will receive life-saving support in the form of €38.8 billion in EU recovery funds. At the same time, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that French taxpayers will be asked to pay directly for the establishment of this fund. Here the radical Right sees a real opportunity, especially if Brussels demands a common tax on all member states to guarantee the repayment of the €750 billion loan.

 

DEFENDING THE NATIONAL ECONOMY

 

It is perhaps no coincidence that before the pandemic struck, 76 per cent of the French public16 admitted to worries about the state of the economy – a figure which has since improved by just one per cent. It is doubtful, then, whether compensatory vouchers and handouts, or holiday cheques and extra days off for medical workers, will bring sufficient succour to car industry giants and the average citizen. France needs not just economic but also social renewal.

In the same vein, it is impossible not to mention the excessive levels of dependency which many in France now see as a primary concern, especially given the progressive decline of French industry (désindustrialisation) and the neglect of the agricultural sector, which is one of the country’s primary sources of income. (Meanwhile, the country makes an annual net contribution of €7 billion to the EU.) Alongside the Eurosceptics, many are beginning to ask whether the country has entirely given up on its traditional protectionism, which can be healthy in moderation, and opted instead to trust entirely in the free market – not merely vis-a-vis its European neighbours, but even in dealings with the United States.

For instance, the government did not exert itself to the full when it emerged that a major French pharmaceutical company hoped to sell a COVID-19 vaccine on the US market first. By the same token, it is noteworthy that a few days ago the government chose to entrust the storage of its citizens’ confidential healthcare data not to the French OVHcloud – the world’s largest cloud-based data storage company – but rather to Microsoft.

Is it merely a coincidence, or does Emmanuel Macron wish to make a conciliatory gesture towards the United States after the law passed against internet giants (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, or GAFA) a year ago? All the more so since Microsoft had since been added to the list of those subject to the tax – a group now referred to as GAFAM.

 

IS A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT POSSIBLE?

 

Though at the founding of his party, La Republique en Marche (LREM), Emmanuel Macron attempted to stake a claim to the political centre, it is his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who seems to be bridging the gap between Left and Right: among supporters of his former party, Les Républicains, his approval rating has risen nine per cent to 69 per cent, while his approval on the Left has likewise risen nine per cent to 50 per cent.17 Instead of plaudits, however, such popularity could be his undoing. There are ever more credible rumours that a more fundamental government reshuffle is on the cards, and that the first to be replaced will be the Prime Minister. Many blame Macron for failing to settle on a unified, effective government team during his three years in office, but the President may fear that Philippe, a former member of Les Républicains, will pivot to the right as 2022 approaches, bolstered by an improved reputation, and that such issues may even have arisen over a lunch Philippe had with former president Nicholas Sarkozy in early June.

During the lockdown period and the subsequent efforts at recovery, the activities of the Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire have also attracted positive notice, and public opinion seems to consider this attention warranted. In some circles, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is also mooted as a potential successor to the post of prime minister.

 

WHO CAN PROFIT FROM MACRON’S WEAKNESS?

 

Emmanuel Macron has visibly shown little leadership in terms of tackling the crisis on a domestic level – beyond a few sonorous pronouncements to his compatriots, one a few weeks after the pandemic struck and another in mid-June, declaring “war” on the pandemic, and emphasising the difficulties it would cause. He entrusted both the communication and implementation of concrete measures to the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Economy and his government spokeswoman. The fingers of one hand are no longer sufficient to tally up all the government changes which have taken place over the first three years of his presidency, so it is no surprise that he aims to make more use of the possibilities available on the European stage, and seeks an international, cross-party alliance.

Meanwhile, the radical right led by Marine Le Pen is attempting to profit from the government’s post-pandemic economic difficulties, but polls show no increase in her party’s popularity. In April, support for Rassemblement National (RN) fell by three per cent.18 The party is trying to cut through to the public with a Eurosceptic message (Marine Le Pen made a proposal in the National Assembly, calling for VAT on medicines and basic foodstuffs to be cut to 2.1 per cent, which the government opposed, citing EU legislation). Despite regular public appearances by party members – particularly Marine Le Pen herself and the leader of the RN delegation at the European Parliament, Jordan Bardella – they have been unable to substantially improve the party’s reputation.

At the same time, Marion Marechal, Marine Le Pen’s niece – who discarded the Le Pen name in 2018 – is a notable public presence. Relations between Marine Le Pen and her niece – a former RN representative of Vaucluse in her very early thirties – have soured somewhat over the past two years, and Marechal has largely withdrawn from national politics, focusing instead on the establishment of a private university (referred to by many as a right-wing Sciences Po). She regularly appears in the media, and gives talks from a national-conservative viewpoint both at home and abroad, and even in the United States. Recently, in response to Bruno Le Maire’s economic strategy proposal, she published a rebuttal, and suggested her own ideas for an economic relaunch after the pandemic.

There are, then, ever more players upon the stage of France’s public life, and the stakes are high for Macron: two years from now France will perhaps have a new government.

The second round of municipal elections in France, postponed by 3 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, had taken place with a record low, only 41.6 per cent turnout. It was 23 per cent less turnout than in the first round in mid-March, when out of 35,000 French mayors, 30,000 were elected.

Although the high number of abstention may be justified by caution in the aftermath of the pandemic, the reason is more likely a series of deficient political decisions (labour, rail, pension reform, ignoring the Yellow Vest) made by Emmanuel Macron and the declining confidence in him.

During this election, we clearly witnessed a green breakthrough, as the eco party took seven of the 42 largest, strategically important settlements with a population of more than 100 000: Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Tours, Annecy, Besançon, moreover they also managed to preserve Grenoble, green since 2014.

Their victory in the above-mentioned cities can be attributed to their alliance with the socialists in the first round of the municipal elections.

In light of this, it is particularly noteworthy that the day after the second round, Olivier Faure, the Socialist Party’s general secretary, endorsed by his green–socialist success in big cities, said his party would be ready to back a green presidential candidate in 2022. That could quite reshape the political landscape, as Emmanuel Macron got an opponent now on his own field with the Greens.

In the spring of 2022, if the eco party finds the right button for the jacket, Macron may have to fight hard to get even into the second round of the presidential elections. Otherwise the two parties on the battleground could only be the Greens and the extreme right. 

Translation by Thomas Sneddon

 

Notes:

 

8 French gendarme Arnaud Beltrame voluntarily sacrificed his life during the terrorist attack in Trebes on 23 March 2018, in exchange for the release of a hostage. The officer, who died a hero, was posthumously promoted to colonel, and President Emmanuel Macron awarded him the highest possible decoration, making him Commander of the Legion d’Honneur.

9 In France, the Fiche-S or S-File is used to identify persons who have been identified by the Directorate-General for Internal Security (DGSI) – the central organ of state security – as potentially dangerous. S-Files come in 16 grades, from S1 to S16.

10 Though the Jewish community makes up only 0.7 per cent in the French population, one third of all victims of hate crimes committed in the country are Jewish. In the spring of 2018, Emmanuel Macron’s government announced the launch of a second campaign against racism and anti-Semitism.

11 See, for instance, the district of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean in Brussels, Belgium. The focal point of Moroccan immigration in the 1950s and 1960s, it is now an area where Sharia Law overwhelmingly prevails. The principal perpetrators of the attacks on Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in 2016, Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Salah Abdeslam were both from Molenbeek. This district is seen as a hotbed of radical Islamism, and its inhabitants have ensured left-wing control for decades.

13 RTL Matin, 2 June 2020.

15 In 2010 Frangois Fillon, then Prime Minister, overtook President Sarkozy in personal approval ratings, reflecting the latter’s unpopularity.

18 https://www.lesechos.fr/politique-societe/politique/coronavirus-marine-le-pen-ne-tire-pas-profit-de-sa-strategie-agressive-dans-lopinion-1191440. 
 




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