The generation of politicians I grew up with had been young in the 1940s, and still sometimes defined one another four decades later by whether they had had 'a good war'. My own generation generally took the view that there was no such thing as a good
war, but those who had gone before us stuck to the phrase. It was an attribute that they held to excuse much, and that was blind to party differences. It applied equally to Major Healey, Brigadier Powell or Lt Col Heath: also to those of humbler rank who could pin a suitably gallant ribbon on their suits for Armistice Day.
That generation is gone, but the phrase still lingers in the political lexicon to describe a politician who emerges from national adversity with his or her reputation enhanced. A conspicuous example was Margaret Thatcher, for whom a successful outcome in the Falklands adventure transformed the least popular Government since records began into the landslide victor of the 1983 'khaki' election. It is not always a reliable process. Famously, Winston Churchill's exceptionally 'good' war against Nazism turned into defeat by Clement Attlee in 1945.
As France endures its third week of full-scale – and ever-tightening – lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming clear that President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe are having a good war. So much so, that it is hard right now to recall the very miserable peace they were having just a few weeks ago. Then, France was in the throes of paralytic strikes and clamorous protests against their pension reforms, which Philippe could only push through the Assemblée Nationale by constitutional sleight of hand. France was declared on all fronts to be a more divided nation than at any time in the history of the Fifth Republic.
And now? A Harris poll last week put Macron's job approval rating at 51%, an astonishing 13 points up on just a month previously and the first time he has cracked the 50% barrier since January 2018. 'Rarely has such a change been observed,' says Harris's head of political polling, Jean-Daniel Levy. 'The last time a Head of State benefited from such a marked increase was during the January 2015 [terrorist] attacks.' Or else, compare the figure with Macron's ratings at the height of the gilets jaunes rumpus: 31% in one poll, 29 in another.
The boost is corroborated elsewhere. Pollsters at OpinionWay-Square report that 51% express confidence in Macron's ability to handle the crisis, and 54% trust the Government response generally. The turning point seems plain. Harris report that 76% judged as 'credible' Macron's gritty, sombre television address on 16 March, in which he repeatedly declared France to be at war.
Such language can sound trite in the cold light of day. But Macron's measured delivery struck the right note with his 35 million viewers. It has inspired not just trust, but acquiescence, never a quality to take for granted in France. Emergency powers first formulated at the time of the 2015 terrorist attacks, allowing the Government to do by decree pretty much whatever it judges necessary, were dusted off and nodded through Parliament without significant dissent. Opposition leaders admitted to reservations, but made a virtue of suppressing them in the interests of unity. That is also not characteristically French, least of all 21st-century French.
As written here previously, lockdown bears especially hard on a social culture that is predominantly conducted in public places and out of doors. In the first week, nearly 92,000 people landed spot fines for breaking the social distancing rules. But that still comes in at less than one offender for each of the 100,000 cops enforcing the rules: symbolic penalties for mostly trivial breaches, the incidence of which has reduced even as the rules have been toughened.
Daily exercise is limited to an hour and a kilometre from home, and a special form must be carried. In our city of Montpellier, a curfew now applies from 9pm, an hour earlier than last week. Initially, the rules were imposed for 15 days, but on 27 March, Philippe announced a two-week extension, to little protest. Says Health Minister, Olivier Véran: 'It will last as long as it has to last'.
Without wanting to score a cheap point, it has to be said that Macron's tone of sober command has also contrasted with the demeanour of the terrified-looking toff in Downing Street, currently indisposed. From the first, Macron gave the impression of facing the challenges with grave but confident determination. True, living next door to Italy was reason enough to take the virus seriously, an impulse reinforced on 24 March when France became the fifth country in the world with a mortality count above 1,000. Inside a week, that toll had trebled.
Still, a near-discredited president has found a new credibility, by reassuring a people who expect the active protection of a strong state. Johnson, contrastingly, set out with every appearance of reluctance, as though unwilling to afford any more than the minimum necessary traction to what he and his chums have spent decades deriding as the nanny state.
As France summarily shut its beloved cafés, the UK was casually advising people not to go for a pint, but leaving pubs to open as they wished, a response more appropriate to a festive drink-drive campaign than a global emergency. According to French media, an angry Macron phoned Johnson on Friday 20 March and warned him that, unless he imposed a properly defined and enforced lockdown, France would unilaterally close its borders with the UK. The lockdown was announced 48 hours later. French diplomatic sources denied that the call amounted to a threat, but it seems as good a word as any.
People do tend to rally round leaders in a crisis. Angela Merkel in Germany, Giuseppe Conte in Italy, even – say the latest polls – Johnson and Trump have all enjoyed modest bumps in approval. But none has started from such a low point of public esteem as Macron, nor soared so high so quickly. He has not been slow to test his new-found credit on the international stage.
Coronavirus has found EU unity wanting – Schengen open borders were an early casualty – and a concerted response elusive. The usual duopoly between Paris and Berlin is fractured, with Merkel self-isolated and preparing for retirement. Macron has been to the fore in pressing for a common EU budgetary approach. He cajoled G7 leaders into the virtual summit on 16 March that committed them to international co-operation based on democratic values, and he has sought to open worthwhile dialogue through the mayhem in Washington.
The war, of course, is far from over, and the peace that follows may be still harder to win. The damage done to France's already torpid economy is bound to be immense, and the steps needed to repair it painful. A receding virus could leave Macron back where he was, trying to administer bitter economic medicine to a resistant country. For now, it has been the saving of him.