Macron’s Domestic Woes Shine Through In Snap Poll Speculation

(Bloomberg) -- The vehement denial by French President Emmanuel Macron’s office of a report that he may resign to trigger an early election has done little to quell that rumor.

The reason: There may be some logic to such a move.

The report in Le Figaro newspaper Thursday said Macron had raised the possibility in a call with London-based donors. The Elysee palace denied it, saying the president was neither on such a call nor has he entertained such an idea -- the government spokeswoman told France Info radio Macron’s resignation would be “bizarre.” Still, it set the chattering classes abuzz, with political radio and television programs talking of little else.

Macron’s Domestic Woes Shine Through In Snap Poll Speculation

What lends the rumor credence is the fact that Macron is in a tight spot. While the pandemic pressed the pause button on all the thorny issues he was dealing with -- from the Yellow Vest protests to the highly contentious pension reforms -- they are all set to resurface. The country’s early response to the coronavirus was deemed to be less than exemplary, and the lockdown-induced contraction of the economy and potential mass job losses will mean some difficult conversations. On the defensive, a new mandate might just be the thing Macron needs.

“An election could be a way to mark a reorientation in Macron’s mandate, and to seek renewed legitimacy by returning to the electorate,” Jean Garrigues, a historian at Orleans University said. “But this would be a risky move, necessary only if you hit rock bottom. That’s not the case for Macron.”

Perhaps not. But Macron has already started talking about reinventing himself and acknowledged flaws in his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. On Sunday, the 42-year-old president will address the nation, an exercise aimed at taking stock of the government’s crisis-management during the pandemic, according to an official close to him.

He may also touch on police violence, which was highlighted last year during the violent protests by the so-called Yellow Vests movement. The issue grabbed headlines again recently with the death in the U.S. of George Floyd, a black man, killed by a white policeman -- a case that sparked demonstrations against the alleged mistreatment by the police of minorities in France. Macron has yet to address that issue.

His speech will come as the number of coronavirus cases in the country dwindles sharply and the end to the lockdown starts taking hold, adding pre-virus problems to the pandemic-related issues he’ll have deal with.

The president has been crafting the “next steps” of his presidency -- an official at the Elysee said. That will mean going back to the drawing board on his flagship pension reform, weighing what parts will have to be scrapped.

Before the pandemic, Macron had pledged to cut back on advantageous retirement regimes to rein in public expenses. The objective still stands, and is possibly even more important given the strain that Covid will put on French coffers, according to his advisers.

Crisis Management

As the government implemented one of the strictest lockdowns to stem the march of the pathogen, it also opened the purse strings to support the economy, pay those who were unable to go to work and pledged billions of euros to help the hardest-hit sectors.

One of the key new reforms will involve major investments in hospitals, the president has said. That came after the health system was found wanting in dealing with the pandemic.

“I realize it isn’t going fast enough and we didn’t address some of your legitimate concerns,” the president told two skeptical nurses last month. He also pledged to increase the salaries of public hospital staff.

A possible internal audit mandated by the executive branch to look into the handling of Covid crisis by the government is another sign of the president’s defensive stance. The audit report would be on top of parliamentary commissions looking into how the government performed relative to other countries -- on the lockdown, tests, masks, and tracking policies.

The government is also being challenged on its decision to maintain the first round of the municipal vote in March, a day before announcing a strict lockdown. The event, marked by a historically low turnout, may have led to excess deaths where turnout was significant, researchers recently said.

No Credit

Granted, France has had successes in its fight against the virus. While close to 30,000 people died, many deaths were avoided thanks to the resilience of the public health system and the swift transfer of patients via high-speed TGV trains. The state moved quickly to support those who could have fallen into poverty, possibly avoiding an uglier recession.

Still, it’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, not Macron, who’s getting credit for those measures.

Macron has the backing of 33% of French voters, according to the pollster Elabe, down from 39% in April. By contrast, the approval rating for Philippe jumped 5 points to 39%, the highest since December 2017.

Garrigues points out that Macron isn’t that much more unpopular than his predecessors Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the same moment of their mandates -- neither of them managed to win reelection and Hollande didn’t even try. The difference this time around is that Macron has no credible adversary (and there would be no time for one to emerge before a snap election) and a strong majority in parliament.

“The situation isn’t that bad for Emmanuel Macron,” Garrigues said. “The question is: What concrete moves will he choose to re-shape the rest of his mandate?”

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