Electoral battle lines defined as Macron stands against France’s unvaccinated | France
EEmmanuel Macron faces growing political divisions over Covid rules ahead of the spring presidential election, after his proposed vaccination permit was delayed and teachers went on strike, amid protests ongoing street protests and an increase in violent threats against politicians.
With a growing sense of fatigue among French voters after two years of pandemic and significant mistrust of the political class, the president – who risks delaying his re-election bid for several weeks as the coronavirus health crisis unfolds 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, even as campaigning for April’s presidential election was due to begin in earnest.
Macron has stepped up his rhetoric against France’s minority of unvaccinated people — less than 10% of the population — in part as a way to set political battle lines for the election.
Coronavirus rules are becoming a significant issue for the campaign. The vaccine pass would tighten Covid-19 restrictions, making proof of vaccination compulsory to enter certain public places, including cafes, restaurants, cinemas and long-distance trains. Macron had hoped to introduce it this weekend. But the bill was forced into a second round of parliamentary debate after lawmakers and senators failed to reach an agreement.
Macron’s recent deliberately radical declaration that he really wanted to throw the unvaccinated “into the shit” by making their daily lives as difficult as possible was aimed at appealing to his own centrist electorate, who are massively vaccinated and exasperated by the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Although France got off to a slow start on vaccines, it now has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe – at over 90% – and a majority of people support the vaccination pass.
The president is seeking to present himself as the centrist voice of reason and science –– as previously defined by his minister for Europe, Clément Beaune, who will play a leading role in his campaign –– against what he considers the dangers of populism among the other candidates: Marine Le Pen and former TV pundit Éric Zemmour on the far right, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left. None of these candidates oppose vaccination, but they have been critical of the vaccine’s success.
Macron’s main challenger, Valérie Pécresse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing Les Républicains party, backs the vaccine, but amendments and challenges from her party in parliament and the senate have blocked its entry into force. Macron’s party on Friday blamed Republicans for delaying Covid protections. But Damien Abad, the party leader in the lower house of parliament and an adviser to Pécresse, called Macron’s comments about throwing people “into the shit” as “cold and calculating populism” aimed at “dividing the people French” for electoral purposes.
There is a climate of mistrust towards the political class and institutions in France, which has been simmering since the anti-government demonstrations of the yellow vests before the pandemic.
Politicians, including from Macron’s party, have filed more than 300 death threat complaints with the police since the introduction of Macron’s health pass in July 2021, which required either vaccination, healing 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 issue of vaccines, the Home Secretary said this week.
Yaël Braun-Pivet, an MP from Macron’s party, received a message saying that if she did not vote against the vaccine, there would be a “gigantic bloodbath” in parliament. Pascal Bois, another MP from Macron’s party, who had already been shot in the post, had his garage and car set on fire two weeks ago with graffiti on the walls about “voting no”.
Within the minority of some 5 million unvaccinated people in France, not all are anti-vaccine in principle, according to a study by the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, Inserm. Some fear side effects and four in 10 may have difficulty accessing relevant health services for free vaccines, including isolated older people in rural communities.
Nevertheless, the cleavages of society are becoming clearer. Jérôme Fourquet of the Ifop pollsters indicated that 51% of French people felt in danger in contact with an unvaccinated person and 51% believed that unvaccinated people had to pay all or part of the cost of their intensive care treatment. These opinions are higher among those over 65, who are courted by both Macron and Pécresse.
More than 100,000 people demonstrated against the vaccination pass across France last weekend, saying it restricted their freedoms. More protests are expected on Saturday.
“Unvaccinated people are held responsible for the latest wave of Covid in France, but it was the lack of public funding for hospitals that created the problems,” said a 27-year-old Parisian who works in the public sector for a government. ministry and has not been vaccinated as she fears unknown side effects. She had voted for Mélenchon in the past, but could now vote far right. “Strangely, it’s the right that now seems more inclined to defend our freedoms as unvaccinated people.”
Polls show Macron is the favorite to come out on top in 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 it to the second round.
Antoine Bristielle, opinion director at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think tank, said the current priority for French voters was purchasing power and making ends meet. “But in second place is Covid, which has made a dramatic comeback as an electoral concern in recent months,” he said.
He said Macron could benefit from the fact that voters often seek stability and known leaders in times of crisis. But he said: “There is currently an extreme distrust of French people towards politics and institutions… Only six out of 10 French people are certain to go to the polls in the presidential election –– 10 points less than in the same period for the last election.”
Stewart Chau, a sociologist and consultant to Viavoice pollsters, said 57% of French people defined their current state of mind as “tired”, made worse by the pandemic. He said that while there has been broad approval of Macron’s handling of the economy during the pandemic, there is a limit to politicians’ ability to capitalize on Covid “because the French clearly want to move on to something else”.