This year has seen French President Emmanuel Macron face increased scrutiny for his management of the country’s COVID-19 crisis. In particular, the decision to impose a third lockdown in April—deemed a ‘Waterloo’ moment by political rival Marine Le Pen—attracted substantial criticism. At last Sunday’s local elections, which saw record low voter turnout, Macron’s centrist party La République en Marche suffered a striking blow, with exit polls estimating the party only received 10.9% of the national vote. At Redfield & Wilton Strategies, our latest research suggests that the coronavirus pandemic has indeed had a negative impact on the French public’s opinion of their President.
A plurality (47%) of respondents say they have an unfavourable view of Emmanuel Macron, including a quarter (25%) who have a very unfavourable view of him. By contrast, 29% say they have a favourable view.
However, the President’s popularity varies significantly with different age groups. Overall, young voters hold the most favourable views of Emmanuel Macron, with 46% of 18-to-24-year-olds saying they have a favourable view of him, compared to 31% who have an unfavourable view. Meanwhile, more than half (54%) of 45-to-54-year-olds view the President unfavourably.
Reflecting upon Emmanuel Macron’s time in office, we see similar rates of discontentment. A plurality (46%) of the French public disapproves of Emmanuel Macron’s overall job performance since he became President of France in 2017. This figure includes a considerable proportion (28%) who say they strongly disapprove. Conversely, 28% say they approve of his overall performance.
These levels of disapproval have remained largely stable over the past few months. When we asked this question a fortnight after France entered its third national lockdown on 15 April, 23% of respondents approved of his performance and 46% disapproved. As such, somewhat more people now approve of his performance, while disapproval remains consistent.
Significantly, Marine Le Pen, leader of Rassemblement National and chief rival to Emmanuel Macron for the presidency, is currently viewed marginally more favourably than Macron: 45% of respondents say they have an unfavourable view of Marine Le Pen, whereas 32% say they have a favourable view of her.
At the recent local elections, Rassemblement National secured only 1 of the 6 regions it was hoping to win, but nevertheless achieved an estimated 19% of the national vote, putting it ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche.
Views of Marine Le Pen have not changed significantly over the past year. When asked a similar question in July 2020, 40% of respondents said they held a negative opinion of Le Pen, 22% held neither a positive nor negative opinion, and 29% said they held a positive opinion of the politician.
Marine Le Pen has been an outspoken critic of Macron’s pandemic management, even publishing a book alleging government incompetence. It seems many people agree with this sentiment: a plurality (43%) of the French public views the current government as incompetent, with only 17% viewing it as competent.
Furthermore, a majority (55%) of people think the French Government has not handled the coronavirus crisis well, compared to 32% who think it has handled the crisis well.
Dissatisfaction with the French Government’s pandemic management varies according to age, gender and location. Among 45-to-54-year-olds, the age bracket with the most unfavourable view of Emmanuel Macron, a strong majority (63%) say the government has not handled the crisis well. This view is shared by more women than men, perhaps reflective of women’s greater caring responsibilities or overrepresentation in sectors of job loss: 60% of women think the crisis has not been handled well, compared to 51% of men. Dissatisfaction is also high among those living in central France, a region including Paris, where 61% of respondents think the crisis has not been handled well.
Overall, however, these results represent a slight improvement on polling over the past six months. In November 2020, we found that 62% of the French public felt their government had not handled the coronavirus crisis well, a proportion which remained stable through February, but rose slightly to 65% during the third lockdown in April. The subsequent decrease in those who think the French Government has not handled the crisis well in our latest research may be influenced by increasingly positive perceptions of the national vaccine rollout.
Nevertheless, a considerable portion of the French public rate their country’s performance during the pandemic to be comparatively poor in relation to its immediate neighbours.
Respondents hold particularly favourable views of Switzerland’s and Germany’s pandemic management, with a plurality (39%) thinking that Switzerland has handled the coronavirus crisis better than France, and as many as half (50%) thinking the same of Germany. Pluralities see Italy (45%) and Spain (49%) as having handled the crisis ‘about the same’ as France, but, in both cases, respondents are unlikely to put France’s management in the superior position.
Finally, the public continues to have a generally negative view of their country’s future direction. A plurality (46%) say they feel pessimistic about the general direction in which France is heading, including one fifth (20%) who consider themselves very pessimistic. By contrast, 25% of respondents say they feel optimistic about France’s direction.
Interestingly, much like attitudes to Macron, the public has become more polarised on this question than they were in April, when 48% said they felt pessimistic and 16% said they felt optimistic about France’s general direction. Political affiliation seems a particularly important predictor, with far greater optimism among those who voted for Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the 2017 Election (39%) than those who voted for Marine Le Pen (15%).
Though there is some evidence of improvement in public mood since the April lockdown, our research suggests that the French public remains deeply critical of their government and pessimistic about the country’s future. A plurality of respondents hold a negative view of Emmanuel Macron and his overall performance in office. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen currently enjoys marginally more favourable views than the sitting president, with many agreeing with her on the question of government incompetence and pandemic mismanagement. Nevertheless, the relative slump in vote share for both Macron’s En Marche and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National at the recent local elections—and corresponding surge in support for mainstream left and right-wing parties—complicates the picture. With the second-round run-off for local elections taking place on 27 June, and the next French Presidential Election set for April 2022, whether Marine Le Pen can maintain and consolidate her momentum remains to be seen.