On the 16th of March this year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide lockdown as a response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. By then, Italy, the first European nation to do so, had been under lockdown for two weeks. The number of confirmed infections in France at the time of the announcement was 6,633, and reported deaths stood at 146.
Towards the end of March, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted a poll asking how French voters perceived France’s response to the crisis. At the time, shortly after the lockdown had begun, 43% of respondents believed that France was not ready to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
Two months onwards, as the total lockdown neared its end in late May, we again conducted a poll in France to assess the evolution of public opinion with respect to France’s coronavirus response. By this point, the coronavirus pandemic had claimed the lives of more than 28,000 people in France, and confirmed cases stood at more than 140,000. The lockdown, initially intended to last only a few weeks, was still largely in effect with only minor relaxations.
These drastic changes thus underscore the results of our latest survey in France, where we found President Emanuel Macron’s approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus crisis dropping from +10% to -22%, a stunning 32% swing.
When considering a number of leaders across Europe and the world, respondents in France thought that President Macron had demonstrated bad leadership at similar rates as they had for Prime Minister Boris Johnson; 43% indicating that Macron had demonstrated poor leadership, while 45% had selected the same for Johnson and a whopping 61% for President Donald Trump. Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, had 56% of French respondents saying she had demonstrated good leadership.
Polls conducted by us in Italy and Germany around the same time in May, meanwhile, found nearly a third of Italians believing France had handled the crisis worse than Italy, and nearly half of Germans thinking France had handled the crisis worse than Germany.
The controversy surrounding the French government’s alleged destruction of masks before the pandemic, Macron’s loss of a majority at the National Assembly coupled with the legacy of the Gilets Jaunes, may account for such a shift in approval.
In March, the French public overwhelmingly supported the stern response to the crisis, widely approving of the decision to go into a lockdown. Macron’s crisis initially positive approval rating likely reflected appreciation for this decision.
But even at that time, there were strong suggestions that an alarmed French public was frustrated with their Governments’ response up until that point. About two-thirds of respondents believed that the French Government’s actions had ‘fallen far short.’ This number had only slightly decreased to 60% by late May.
Similarly, a majority in March believed that the Government had not emphasised enough the threat from the coronavirus to the public. This number has dropped only to a plurality in late May, indicating that more respondents believe that the Government has caught up with the public’s own perceptions.
Altogether, 63% of respondents to our poll answered that France has handled this crisis poorly. For respondents living in the east of France––one of the first and most severely hit regions––this resentment rose to 70% of respondents.
Moving forward, a considerable majority of respondents remain more concerned about the impact of the crisis on public health (69%) than on the economy (31%). This figured broadly corresponds to attitudes in March (70%).
Nevertheless, there is a growing eagerness for the continued easing of the lockdown measures and a greater focus on the economy. 63% of respondents said they were eager for the social distancing measures to end, anticipating Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s announcement just a few days after we conducted our poll that lockdown restrictions would be progressively lifted in June.
A considerable number of French respondents think the pace of the easing of the lockdown measures is progressing too slowly.
Such eagerness reflects a desire to return to the workplace. Indeed, 59% of employers considered that returning to work would be safe. Unsurprisingly, the 18 to 24 age group is the most confident (66%), perhaps reflecting their feeling of invulnerability towards the virus and their distressing economic situation.
This readiness indicates that respondents appear to be acutely aware of France’s economic burden. Indeed, 44% consider supporting the overall economy the most important issue for France in the coming months, rising to over half (54%) of those who voted for Macron in the 2017 Presidential elections.
As the French public now believe its Government has failed in its response to the public health crisis, the shift towards safely getting the country on a better economic footing will be an opportunity for a significantly unpopular President Macron to redeem his prospects of re-election in 2022.