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Macron Beat Back the Coronavirus. France Is Not Impressed.

2020-06-05 17:17:10

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron’s government has beaten back the coronavirus, prevented mass layoffs, propped up the salaries of the unemployed, staved off long food lines, and achieved a lower death rate than its neighbors, Germany excepted.

Mr. Macron ordered a strict lockdown that lasted nearly two months, and when it was over the virus was barely circulating. But while the early response could be faulted for some sluggishness and a shortage of masks, and more than 29,000 people died, France has fared better than many in the pandemic, especially when compared with the United States, Italy, Spain and especially Britain.

Just don’t tell that to the French, who resent Mr. Macron for it more than ever.

The French expect much of their leaders, and almost always find them wanting. Mr. Macron is no exception. In fact, the better the results, the less willing, it seems, the French are to applaud their president. That pattern has held virtually since Mr. Macron took office in 2017, casting a shadow over a term expiring in two years.

Mr. Macron reduced unemployment and created more jobs, but the French resented him for loosening labor protections. He evened out the country’s helter-skelter pension system, and there were months of strikes by aggrieved unions and citizens distrustful of his intentions.

Even as the French celebrated their provisional release from lockdown this week with the much-anticipated partial reopening of cafes and restaurants, the coronavirus has only reinforced the paradox of the president’s uneasy relationship with his own citizens.

“Deconfinement is going pretty well,” said Olivier Galland, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research. “But the French don’t seem satisfied. But I don’t think they can ever be satisfied.”

On Friday the head of the government’s scientific council, the immunologist Jean-François Delfraissy, declared the epidemic “under control” in France, in an interview on French radio. Still, the French, far more than their European neighbors, have judged the government’s performance in response to the health crisis harshly.

“Distrust is a structural element of French society, stable and well-established,” Mr. Galland wrote in a recent paper on “The Great Depression of the French” for Telos, a widely followed political science website.

On average, over half of Europe’s citizens, outside of France, view their government’s performance in response to the virus favorably, even in countries with far worse records. In France, 66 percent have an unfavorable view, according to a recent Figaro poll.

Mr. Macron stiffened and looked impatient when he was asked recently on French television about his unpopularity.

“Look, I don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “I’m looking ahead.’’

“For decades this country has known doubt and division,’’ Mr. Macron added. ‘‘I don’t believe in miracles. This distrustful France exists. It hasn’t changed.”

Whatever credit France’s government gets from its success in dealing with the virus has gone instead to Mr. Macron’s understated prime minister, Édouard Philippe.

“The news is pretty good,” Mr. Philippe said simply last week, after looking at the post-lockdown results. Over 60 percent found him convincing in a poll by the independent Odoxa polling firm for Le Figaro and France-Info.

In a sign of his political ascendancy, Mr. Philippe was on the cover of this week’s L’Obs, a popular weekly newsmagazine, with the headline, “The Tough Guy.”

“Can Macron do without Édouard Philippe?” the magazine asked, alighting on speculation that Mr. Macron would jettison a prime minister who has stolen the spotlight once the crisis ended.

Yet the government’s measures — a tightly enforced lockdown, mobilization of French technology like high-speed trains to save patients, and closely followed counsel from scientists — were Mr. Macron’s. That is the French way: the president decides, and the nation follows.

In contrast to those on the street, many experts and others interviewed gave the government good marks.

Guillaume Chiche, a parliamentarian who recently deserted Mr. Macron’s party — another sign of the French president’s waning popularity — said the government’s actions “were very strong.’’

‘‘Now, they seem logical. But at the time they were anything but neutral,” Mr. Chiche said, pointing to the moves to prop up salaries, ban religious ceremonies, and impose the lockdown. “I think they made choices that were optimal.”

Still, he joined 13 other members of parliament who deserted the French president’s party in May, depriving it of its majority — a symbolic blow widely interpreted in the French media as an ominous sign for Mr. Macron’s future.

Mr. Chiche, an ex-Socialist, has been one of the president’s critics on the left, a group judging him too favorable to business and urging him to “define a new horizon,” as Mr. Chiche put it.

Frederic Keck, an anthropologist and biosecurity expert, also at the National Center for Scientific Research, called Mr. Macron’s handling of the pandemic ‘‘pretty good.’’

“Very centralized management around the president. Very French, but also relatively efficient,” he said.

“This dissatisfaction is the reflection of an excessive demand for security,’’ Mr. Keck added. But he, too, noted that Mr. Macron was not getting much credit.

Over half the French approve of the government’s reopening plan. But they don’t approve of Mr. Macron: Just 30 to 40 percent judged him up to dealing with the epidemic. In another Figaro poll, 62 percent of respondents found Mr. Macron’s manner ‘‘arrogant’’ and ‘‘authoritarian.’’

In some ways Mr. Macron is his own worst enemy, with a style that can come off as imperious. His speeches during the crisis were lengthy and literary, both trademarks. He first reproached the French for lacking “a sense of responsibilities,” then later praised them for their discipline.

“He likes these lyrical effusions, and people just aren’t keen on that,” Mr. Galland said.

In the recent television appearance, Mr. Macron was shown meeting a group of unhappy top chefs by videoconference from the Élysée Palace.

The chefs — some of the most famous names in French cuisine, including Alain Ducasse — didn’t conceal their frustration at being forced to stay closed during the lockdown.

“We’re not optimistic about the survival of about half of our restaurants,” Mr. Ducasse said.

Mr. Macron was not impressed. He smiled slightly at the grumbling, then administered a lesson to the complaining chefs.

“Look, I like liberty as much as you,’’ Mr. Macron said. ‘‘But what you’ve got to remember is that it’s good to exercise this liberty in a country like France. It’s good to live in a country where the state is strong.”

He added, pointedly, “There are other countries where the state is letting people fail.”

Constant Meheut contributed reporting.


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