If, as many are predicting, the wheels are about to come off Boris Johnson’s premiership, few world leaders will be as indifferent as Emmanuel Macron. He and the PM have rarely seen eye to eye.
It may very well have been more than just a coincidence that Johnson yesterday declared Britain was ‘open for business’ just as France’s full vaccine pass came into force. The contrast is clear, as the Prime Minister surely intended. While Britain — or at least, England — is emerging from the Covid crisis, France, has in place some of the most stringent restrictions in the West. Masks remain mandatory outdoors and adults without three jabs to their arms can do little other than shop for groceries or go for a walk in the park.
But while Macron imposes on the French what some liken to China’s social credit system, his arch-enemy Johnson used a visit to a hospital in Milton Keynes on Monday to declare that ‘things are starting to get better’. By way of illustrating his bullish assessment, the PM said that ‘to show the country is open for business, we will see changes that people no longer have to take tests if they are double vaccinated’. From 11 February, double-vaccinated holidaymakers will no longer be obliged to take a Covid lateral flow test on returning home.
Johnson was reportedly described as a ‘clown’ by the French president in November, a description that probably resonates among some of the Tory backbenchers. Nonetheless, for all No. 10’s travails, the fact remains that England is a beacon of liberty in an increasingly authoritarian Europe.
On Sunday, 50,000 angry demonstrators from across the continent gathered in Brussels to protest against the ongoing restrictions. The rally turned violent with police officers attacked, over 200 protesters were arrested, a handful of whom were from France.
That in itself won’t trouble Macron’s government which, in recent days, has doubled down on its rhetoric towards those refusing to have their three jabs. Last week the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin accused some protesters at an anti-vaccine pass march in Paris of giving the Nazi salute, an accusation that was soon disproved by footage showing the crowd were innocently clapping in unison. It was an embarrassing gaffe for a government that last year set up a commission to counter fake news.
Of more concern to the President will be the opinion poll at the weekend that revealed he has lost four approval points this month, his sharpest fall since 2021. His boast that he wanted to ‘piss off’ the unvaccinated has not been well received, a vulgarity unworthy of a President of the Republic.
Criticism is growing of Macron’s handling of the pandemic and awkward comparisons are increasingly being drawn between life in France and life in Britain. A centre-right senator, Loïc Hervé, used a radio interview at the weekend to praise Britain’s acceleration out of the restrictions, as did Dr Gérald Kierzek, who declared Macron’s vaccination strategy ‘an error’. In contrast, he said Britain has for a long time been the ‘reference’ in dealing with Covid, particularly the Omicron variant.
Florian Philippot, the leader of the right-wing Patriots party, is another with a penchant for championing la belle vie in Britain. ‘So while the UK lives totally normally, in France we’ve just announced that from 16 February we’ll finally be able to eat standing up in the restaurant,’ he said last week in response to the government’s timetable for lifting some restrictions. ‘What madness!’ The current law permits patrons in bars and restaurants to eat and drink only if they are seated.
To the Elysée’s credit, there have been no partygate scandals to inflame public opinion à la Johnson. This appears to be an administration that obeys its own rules, no matter how absurd or authoritarian. That may be due to Macron’s ascetic personality, the antithesis of the Bacchanalian Boris. One of the contributors to a coruscating biography of the President published last year was François Baroin, the Minister of Finance under Nicolas Sarkozy. He described Macron as a man ‘who has no friends, no children, no hobbies’.
This explains why Macron has never won over the French, why his approval rating has throughout his presidency remained constant at 25 per cent. One in four French think he’s marvellous, whatever he does; the rest find him either contemptible or a conundrum, an austere man with no apparent joie de vivre.
On the other hand, a poll last summer revealed that the French — particularly the working-class — were far more smitten with the ‘eccentric’ Johnson. Macron has never enjoyed such favour. He is not a man of the people. He distrusts the people, which is why France remains closed for business.