COVID and the French presidential election
LA CAMPAGNE NUMÉRO QUATRE: reporting from Paris, 185 days until Macron's re-election
During the terrible months of lockdowns in France, there was a lot of hopeful talk of “le monde d'après” – the world after COVID. Those days and nights of physical isolation led many to contemplate their lives and to reevaluate their choices in “le monde d'avant” — the world before COVID. Articles, think pieces, even books, were written about what could be done differently, and better, in the Great After, once the virus would have subsided. Some ventured that everything should change because everything had changed.
Reports of epochal transformations were greatly exaggerated. A bit like New Year’s resolutions, the heartfelt professions of personal and societal improvement, announced and anticipated in the liminal days of lockdown, have come and gone. The world after looks eerily like the world before, at least here in Paris, and for the time being.
Paris is back. Cafés and restaurants are brimming with patrons, shops are open as are Paris’ bustling markets, people go to department stores and to the movies, theaters and museums are humming, at the end of the day the streets fill up with raucous high school kids and the metro is as packed as ever. Parisians do wear the mask in most confined spaces such as public transportation — but not in cafés or restaurants where, thanks to the pass sanitaire (the vaccination passport on everyone’s smartphone), you can take it off and enjoy your express or your meal. Everyday life has regained an eerie air of normalcy.
One noticeable difference is the relative absence of tourists. I have encountered a few, overhearing German and Dutch and the occasional American-tinged English, but foreign visitors are sparse. In the monde d’avant, long lines of Asian tourists would stretch on the sidewalks by the windows of Paris’ luxury stores. From the outside, the luxe boutiques shine their usual shine, but inside they are all but empty. That is not anecdotal: before the pandemic France was the number one tourist destination in the world. At 89 Million visitors in 2018, it was well on its way to pass the symbolic 100 Million mark in the coming years. Tourism and ancillary businesses accounted for an estimated 13% of the country’s GDP. There is no telling how long it will take to return to these pre-COVID levels. We are not yet back to normal. Normal is only skin-deep.
And besides “normal,” such as it is, is in fact the result of enormous efforts on everybody’s part. From healthcare workers and so-called essential workers to teachers and parents all the way to civil servants and politicians, the entire country went through eighteen months of emergency mass mobilization. Today’s “normal” (or almost normal) is not just a relief but at a victory. Rather than a narrow victory of policy for the government or the President, it is above all a collective victory. People held and endured, and everybody took on a share of the burden, however unequally. Even those who refused at first to get vaccinated eventually relented. When speaking of the pandemic, friends and acquaintances say “we” a lot. “We” is back. So that’s a change.
We are only scratching the surface. The consequences of the COVID crisis on French society will reverberate for years, if not decades. In the meantime, the direct and immediate political effects of the ordeal are unfolding in the polls.
Although it seems like the distant past, it was not so long ago that Macron’s popularity was approaching his predecessor's territory. In December 2018, as the Gilets Jaunes protests were cresting, Macron was at 23% of positive opinions. A year later, the embattled President had only clawed his way back up to 34%. His agenda of structural reforms was deeply unpopular. He appeared mired in a lose-lose predicament: forcing through more reforms was certain to tank his re-election prospects while caving to popular pressure would have weakened his support among centrists and right-wing voters. On the eve of the COVID crisis, the knives were out. Several potential contenders sensed the zugzwang Macron found himself in and began to make preparations for a presidential run.
Fast forward to the Fall 2021: last month the President was polling at 46% favorable opinions, way ahead of the two past Presidents at a similar date in their 5-year tenure. In September 2016, seven months prior to the election, Hollande polled at an abysmal 20% while Sarkozy in 2011 polled at a middling 35%. Hollande beat Sarkozy in 2012, and decided not to run in 2017. In all likelihood, and unlike the two former Presidents, Macron will get re-elected.
That reversal of political fortunes is entirely attributable to Macron’s leadership throughout the crisis. While the government dithered at the beginning, Macron quickly grasped the peril and the scope of the pandemic. On March 12, 2020, as cases and death were climbing at an exponential rate, the President addressed the nation on TV and announced that the State would fight with whatever means necessary — “quoiqu’il en coûte” (“whatever it costs” or takes, it means both). In a few words, Macron threw out the window his previous and somewhat rigid commitments to fiscal austerity, targeted supply-side tax cuts and "right-sizing” France’s public sector and whatnot. All the very clever, investors-friendly, wonkish, neoliberal gobbledygook was summarily dispatched. “Health is priceless” the President declared, and the State would act accordingly.
The institutions of the Fifth Republic foster a permanent and intense give-and-take between the President, the elected monarch, and the people who tolerate his or her rule. “Quoiqu’il en coûte” made it possible for the French population to accept the hardships and the restrictions of the lockdowns. In return for their collective forbearance, never a given for the French, the State would loosen the purse strings. People tend to forget, but it was a complete and unexpected about-face for Macron. The cerebral bean-counter suddenly turned generous, the neoliberal proved he could be liberal with the State’s finances. That was the give-and-take. It worked.
The estimated cost of “quoiqu’il en coûte” is pegged at €424 Billion spread over the years 2020 to 2022. This price tag includes the cost of medical care and the various measures to support workers and companies. It was the right policy. It is what enabled “normal” to return.
There will be many debates and inquiries about what went wrong and what could have been done better and how many additional lives could have been saved. But in the end, “quoiqu’il en coûte” was the pivotal moment of the pandemic. Macron set aside his ideological orthodoxy and rose to the challenge.
This did not mean that le monde d’après would be very different from le monde d’avant. All the old and nagging problems remain, some of them magnified by the myriad dislocations brought on by the pandemic. But the country did not collapse. It’s not so much that Macron saved the day. Everybody did their part. But by enacting the urgent and the necessary from his perch, he did what was expected of France’s elected monarch. That is no small feat.
There's little value in speculating about alternate timelines. Still, one can't help but shudder at how a notoriously indecisive and pusillanimous President Hollande would have navigated the crisis, not to mention the hasty and dilettante Sarkozy. As for Marine Le Pen, you only need to look at Trump and Bolsonaro.
Such is the malady of the Fifth Republic, that so much would ride on the personal qualities — and shortcomings — of a single individual. Après moi le déluge.
À la prochaine ! — M.
Eric Zemmour visited a law enforcement trade show. It took a dark turn when he “jokingly” pointed a sniper rifle at members of the press, aka his colleagues. So much rides on the personal qualities and shortcomings of a single individual.
Today’s song is UN AUTRE MONDE, by French rock semi-gods Téléphone: “I was dreaming of another world… I was sound asleep”