Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on 29 January that the government would not impose the widely expected third nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of Covid-19 infections. President Emmanuel Macron’s last-minute U-turn, which goes against his scientific advisors’ opinion, reflects growing fears about “lockdown fatigue” and the country’s economic prospects in 2021. The risk is that the government is forced to implement a lockdown anyway, severely damaging Macron’s political capital ahead of the 2022 presidential election.
The growing worries about the spread of new strains of the virus had recently led some government members to suggest a third lockdown was inevitable. However, the number of daily cases has recently plateaued at around 20,000, with the positivity rate also having stabilized to around 6.6%. These data points made it more difficult for the authorities to argue in favor of a lockdown, especially since the country has been under a reinforced 6am-6pm curfew since mid-January.
The government also seems to be concerned about a potential backlash against the imposition of restrictions. According to an ELABE opinion poll, the public remains split on whether a third lockdown is necessary, even if a majority would comply with it if imposed. However, the recent images of riots in the Netherlands and the growing malaise amongst specific groups such as students and workers in the hospitality sector seem to have been considered by the government as additional reasons for caution.
Macron’s bet is that the current restrictions will suffice to control the virus until a sufficient percentage of the population is immunized. However, the rhythm of vaccinations remains slow, and despite an increase in the number of French citizens willing to take the jab (around 47% according to polls), vaccine skepticism is still the highest in Europe. The government expects that the arrival of new supplies will help to speed up the pace of immunizations, and it has authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered in pharmacies.
Beyond avoiding a public backlash against a lockdown, Macron’s decision is probably also aimed at giving the French economy an opportunity to grow by 6%, as forecast by the Ministry of Finance. The obvious risk attached to this bet is that the number of cases starts rising again, forcing the government to reverse its decision on avoiding a shutdown. Such a move would hit the economy at a crucial political moment for Macron. The president needs a strong recovery in the second half of the year to avoid another “Gilets Jaunes” scenario and campaign from a solid position in the first months of 2022.
Although several potential candidates have yet to declare whether they will run in the presidential contest, opinion polls still show the election remains a two-way race between Macron and far-right National Rally (RN) leader Marine Le Pen. Last week, a reported but “unpublished” poll put Le Pen ahead of Macron in the first round and within the margin of error in a runoff, with the incumbent president still winning. While it is true that Le Pen’s prospects are better than in 2017, there is still a long way to go until the election, and 60% of French voters still have a negative image of her, the highest percentage among all the potential candidates.