Macron vs Omicron: Leader wary of pandemic fatigue among French voters

Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has put him in a strong position to win a second term as President of France – but his supporters fear he will lose his lead as infections with the Omicron variant are reaching a peak and the public is tired of the two-year-old crisis.

“We are at the tipping point where people are now fed up with the restrictions. Things could go wrong for him,” said a French industrialist who backed Macron in 2017 and wants him to win again in the April election. “They think the situation no longer deserves the restrictions.”

As Macron prepares to officially declare himself a candidate for re-election, his government is struggling to limit the intense pressure exerted on hospitals by Covid patients, while responding to popular demands to ease restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus. .

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday that some Covid rules would be relaxed next month, even though new confirmed infections number more than 400,000 a day, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

Until recently, voters were broadly supportive of Macron’s handling of the pandemic. The coronavirus emergency in early 2020 sidelined anti-government “yellow vest” protests that had rocked his presidency. After early missteps on the availability of masks and testing, the president was praised for a financial relief package 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 vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test compulsory to access public places, has also paid off. It encouraged millions more to take the hit, saving 4,000 lives and €6 billion in economic activity, according to a study by researchers from Bruegel and the French Council for Economic Analysis.

A sign outside a restaurant in Nice 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”, 1 million more people took their first vaccines.

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

The havoc Omicron has wreaked on the French school system has added to public discontent, with teachers and parents complaining about complex rules on testing and isolation. As Macron laid out his vision for the future of the EU in a speech in Strasbourg this week, his government tried to calm the anger, handing out medical-grade face 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 people gather in nationwide rallies. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer was forced to apologize for taking a vacation to Ibiza at the end of December – even though he broke no rules – after critics said his actions were evidence of the government’s chaotic handling of school safety protocols when students returned in January.

A recent Ifop opinion poll showed public confidence in the government’s ability to fight the pandemic has fallen nine percentage points to 41% since early December. Macron’s overall popularity has fallen four points since November, with 40% having a favorable view of his record, according to an Ipsos poll on Jan. 12.

Students in French schools join a rally called by teachers' unions to protest the impact of Omicron's rules on education

French schoolchildren join a rally organized by teachers’ unions to protest the impact of Omicron’s rules on education © Clément Mahoudeau/AFP /Getty Images

“The return to school after the Christmas holidays was a mess and irritated a lot of people – all this on top of the general exhaustion of the health crisis,” said political scientist Chloé Morin.

But analysts say the political impact of Omicron is difficult to predict. Infections and hospitalizations continue to rise, but daily intensive care admissions were down about 6% last week from the previous week.

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

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

Omicron also diverted attention from issues such as immigration and crime that had dominated the 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, are struggling to bring the agenda back to their favorite terrain.

Macron polls around 25% of voting intentions in the first round, compared to 18% for Le Pen, 16% for Pécresse and 11.5% for Zemmour, according to recent Ifop polls.

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

The issue that sparked the Yellow Vest protests in 2018 – the cost of fuel for vehicles – has come back to haunt the government as rising oil prices drive 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 responded to voters’ concerns by announcing additional law enforcement spending and capping the increase in household electricity bills this year at 4% by looting revenue from state-controlled energy group EDF .

He’s also trying to unbalance Pécresse – who polls show is his most dangerous rival if they both reach the second round – by pointing out the differences between his LR supporters on everything from vaccination mandates to France’s role in the EU.

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

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