Can Emmanuel Macron turn the tide?

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 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

They are marching in Paris again. Last Saturday, demonstrations took place in the French capital and in 160 towns across the country, calling French President Emmanuel Macron a dictator. This week, from his tour of French Polynesia, Macron called for unity, fending off criticism that he is staging a coup d’etat with the new requirement to show a passe sanitaire, or health pass to be allowed into public places, in other words to be double-jabbed or show a negative PCR test.

Many have called it a “Nazi health pass”. The number of protesters was small — 16,000 people across France — but it is likely that they will march regularly, in a return to the gilets jaunes’, or yellow vest Saturday protests. And even if their importance is likely to dwindle with time, their determination, violence and hatred of the President fed by social networks, alongside the predominance of the extreme Right and far Left in their ranks might make life difficult for Macron, who is keenly aware of the need to prove himself before next year’s elections in April. If he wins, he will be the first French president since Jacques Chirac to serve two terms.

Unrest began two days before Bastille Day, when we heard that Macron was to address the nation. When we saw him standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, an unusual presidential setting, we pricked up our ears. We had read that the Delta variant was spreading fast across the Channel and that it was just a question of weeks before it did the same here.

Still, Parisians had embraced the summer and the reopening of café terraces with renewed passion. Most of them, at least the under-thirties, had forgotten about vaccination. “I’ll wait until September, no need to rush. I may have had Covid anyway,” said my 30-year-old cousin when I asked if he had got his jabs. Such wishful thinking was certainly prevalent among young French people, that is, until the President spoke on July 12. Daily injections of first doses had peaked at the end of May with an average of 420,000 before nose-diving to barely 180,000 a day. In comparison, 35.6 million Britons are double vaccinated, 56.2 per cent of the population.

Macron  gives televised address to the nation on July 12 (AFP via Getty Images)
Macron gives televised address to the nation on July 12 (AFP via Getty Images)

In his address, Macron got straight to the point: vaccination is the only weapon we have against Covid, the only way we might avoid more lockdowns. This summer is going to be a race against time. For those wanting to bide their time, do as you wish, Macron added, but you can forget about doing anything pleasurable. Access to cinemas, nightclubs, festivals, concerts, cafés, restaurants, shopping centres, gyms and even long-haul trains would only be granted to those able to show a valid passe sanitaire. Every health and care worker would have to be vaxxed by September 15 or risk losing their job. If this was not enough, warned the president, he would have to consider making vaccination compulsory for all.

Within minutes, the appointment booking platforms had crashed, with 30,000 people per minute looking for slots. In the week that followed his address, there were six million appointments for jabs, that’s roughly 10 per cent of the population. As of this week, 50.5 per cent of the French population aged over 12 are fully vaccinated. In a month, 90 per cent of French adults will have had their first jabs. You could call it a resounding success, This being France, however, a vocal minority is calling Macron a dictator.

Silent majority: the booking site to get the vaccine has crashed. More than half of the population are fully vaccinated (AFP via Getty Images)
Silent majority: the booking site to get the vaccine has crashed. More than half of the population are fully vaccinated (AFP via Getty Images)

The agenda for the next few months will be shrouded by Covid, making it hard for Macron to fight a normal presidential campaign. However, despite being often described as the man the French love to hate, polls show that he has significant support. Having managed the pandemic rather well in the circumstances and leading a vaccination roll-out despite a shambolic start, Macron’s ratings are high in comparison with his two predecessors.

At just above 40 per cent of overall satisfaction, he is twice as popular as François Hollande, and a long way ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy, at the same time in his mandate. If anything, this shows the French contrarian character: they like their president to have some majesty but despise him as soon as he displays it. Macron acknowledged this love-hate sentiment: “We are a country that has that in its history, in its guts,” he replied last year when a journalist asked him why he thought he was a figure of hate for some.

Inevitably, he has also been portrayed as out of touch. However, as his tour of villages and towns this summer has shown, he relishes meeting people and convincing them that he is right. A very French president after all.

As for his wife Brigitte, she has been a steady first lady, unlike the second Mrs Sarkozy who left her husband months after his election, and unlike Mr Hollande’s brooding girlfriend, notoriously deceived while living at the Elysée Palace.

So what could bring him down? On Saturday July 17, I was an observer at the first anti-vax and anti-health pass protest in Paris and I could feel the antagonism between protesters and onlookers. That day, I saw and heard many standing aside and watching in dismay, muttering insults at protesters.

Far Left and extreme Right figures were marching with them, calling Macron a dictator. I talked to a few Parisians. Nicole, an elderly woman on Boulevard Saint Germain, said: “They call themselves résistants, this makes me sick. I was a child in the war. They are spoilt brats who think their freedom comes with no responsibility.”

While one of the protesters urged the crowd to march on the National Assembly, a young man standing on the pavement in Rue des Saint Pères was disapproving: “There is only one dictator, it is called Covid and it has killed four million people in the world. Vaccination is the only way towards liberté and, guess what, it is free. As for the health pass, it is also the freedom to live and travel as you please.”

In true Left Bank fashion, his friend, a political scientist student called Damien, quoted Hannah Arendt: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” Those few Parisians I talked to belong to the “silent majority”.

The polls since Macron’s address on July 12 have been clear: 70 per cent back both the compulsory vaccination for health and care workers and the health pass. If only 47 per cent of 18-34 year-olds approve of the health pass, 82 per cent of the vaccinated are in favour. Besides, when on a Saturday 160,000 people demonstrate against the health pass “tyranny”, another 900,000 are getting vaccinated. A poll for Le Parisien even revealed that 60 per cent would agree to compulsory vaccination for all if it proved necessary.

Voted by the National Assembly at 5.40am last Friday, the health pass has proved divisive. Many café owners are uncomfortable at the idea of asking people for their Covid certificate. Jeremie, the charming manager at my local café near Notre Dame, was in two minds about it until I showed him mine. “It’s like showing your ticket to the train manager, right?”

Since France flexed its muscles on vaccination, other European countries have followed suit. Mario Draghi from Italy is doing exactly the same with his “green pass” from August 6. Even Angela Merkel is now talking about special restrictions for unvaccinated people.

In his July address, Macron also laid out his plans until the election. He promised to carry out his pension reform when and if the pandemic subsides. All if this could mean that when it comes to the election, some French people may want steady continuity. Despite the talk of hatred, he could also easily be talked of as the man the French secretly admire and wish to see steering the country’s wheel for another five years. The next few months will be critical.

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