Election battle lines set as Macron pits himself against France’s unvaccinated

Emmanuel Macron is facing growing political divisions over Covid rules in the run-up to the spring presidential election, after his proposed vaccine pass was delayed and teachers took strike action, amid ongoing street demonstrations and a rise in violent threats against politicians.

With an increasing mood of fatigue among French voters after two years of the pandemic and a significant mistrust of the political class, the president –– who is likely to hold off declaring his re-election bid for several weeks as the coronavirus health crisis continues –– wants to be seen as reliable but firm.

France has been hit by a fifth wave of Covid infections, with more than 305,000 daily cases reported on Thursday, just as campaigning for the April presidential election was due to begin in earnest.

Macron has ramped up his rhetoric against France’s minority of non-vaccinated people –– less than 10% of the population –– in part as a way of setting the political battle lines for the election.

Coronavirus rules are becoming a significant issue for the campaign. The vaccine pass would harden Covid-19 restrictions, making proof of vaccination mandatory to enter certain public places including cafes, restaurants, cinemas and long-distance trains. Macron had hoped to introduce it this weekend. But the bill has been forced to a second round of parliamentary debate after lawmakers and senators failed to reach agreement.

Macron’s recent, deliberately radical statement that he really wanted to dump non-vaccinated people “in the shit” by making their daily lives as difficult as possible was aimed to appeal to his own centrist electorate, which is overwhelmingly vaccinated and exasperated at the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Although France had a slow start on vaccines, it now has one of the highest rates of vaccination in Europe – at more than 90% – and a majority of people support the vaccine pass.

The president is seeking to portray himself as the centrist voice of reason and science –– as previously defined by his Europe minister, Clément Beaune, who will play a leading role in his campaign –– against what he deems the dangers of populism among other candidates: Marine Le Pen and the former TV pundit Éric Zemmour on the far right, and the left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon. None of those candidates oppose vaccination, but they have been critical of the vaccine pass.

Macron’s main challenger, Valérie Pécresse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing party, Les Républicains, supports the vaccine pass but her party’s amendments and challenges in parliament and the senate have stalled it coming into force. Macron’s party blamed Les Républicains on Friday for delaying Covid protections. But Damien Abad, the head of the party in the parliament’s lower house and an advisor to Pécresse, described Macron’s comments about dumping people “in the shit” as “cold and calculating populism” aimed at “dividing the French people” for electoral purposes.

Related: Valérie Pécresse: the ‘bulldozer’ who would be France’s first female president

There is a mood of mistrust of the political class and institutions in France, which has simmered since the gilets jaunes anti-government protests before the pandemic.

Elected politicians, particularly from Macron’s party, have made more than 300 complaints to police of death threats against them since the introduction of Macron’s health pass in July 2021, which required either vaccination, recovery from coronavirus or a negative test for access to public places such as restaurants and libraries. There have been more than 60 complaints of violence against elected officials so far this month, including over the vaccine issue, the interior minister said this week.

Yaël Braun-Pivet, a lawmaker from Macron’s party, received a message saying if she didn’t vote against the vaccine pass there would be a “gigantic bloodbath” in parliament. Pascal Bois, another lawmaker from Macron’s party, who had already received a bullet in the post, had his garage and car torched two weeks ago with graffiti on the walls about “voting no”.

Within the minority of the roughly 5 million unvaccinated people in France, not all are anti-vaccine by principle, according to research by France’s national institute of health and medical research, Inserm. Some have fears over side-effects and four out of 10 may have difficulties accessing the relevant health services for free vaccines, including elderly people isolated in rural communities.

Nevertheless, divisions in society are becoming clear. Jérôme Fourquet of the pollsters Ifop said 51% of French people felt they were in danger when in contact with a non-vaccinated person and 51% felt non-vaccinated people should pay all or part of the cost of their treatment in intensive care. These views are higher among over-65s, who are being courted by both Macron and Pécresse.

More than 100,000 people protested against the vaccine pass across France last weekend, saying it curbed their liberties. More demonstrations are expected on Saturday.

“Non-vaccinated people are being held responsible for the latest Covid wave in France, but it’s lack of government hospital-funding that created the problems,” said a 27-year-old woman from Paris who works in the public sector for a government ministry and has not been vaccinated because she fears unknown side-effects. She had voted for Mélenchon in the past, but might now vote far right. “Strangely, it’s the right which now seems more likely to defend our liberties as non-vaccinated people.”

Polls show Macron is the favourite to top the first round of the presidential election and could beat a far-right candidate in the final contest, but would face a challenge from Pécresse if she makes the second round.

Antoine Bristielle, the director of opinion at the Fondation Jean Jaurès thinktank, said the current priority for French voters was purchasing power and making ends meet. “But in second place is Covid, which has made a spectacular return as an election concern in recent months,” he said.

He felt that Macron could benefit from the fact that voters often looked for stability and known leaders in a crisis. But he said: “There is currently an extreme mistrust among French people towards politics and institutions … Only six out of 10 French people are certain they will turn out to vote in the presidential election –– 10 points lower than the same period for the last election.”

Stewart Chau, a sociologist and consultant at the pollsters Viavoice, said 57% of French people defined their current state of mind as “fatigued”, worsened by the pandemic. He said that although there was broad approval of Macron’s handling of the economy during the pandemic, there is a limit to politicians’ ability to capitalise on Covid “because French people clearly want to move on to something else”.