Several European Leaders See A Popularity Boost During Coronavirus Pandemic Even after Europe became an epicenter in the global spread of COVID-19, a number of leaders have had growing approval from their citizens.
NPR logo Several European Leaders See A Popularity Boost During Coronavirus Pandemic

Several European Leaders See A Popularity Boost During Coronavirus Pandemic

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a video conference call with French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi on efforts to develop a vaccine and treatment against the new coronavirus, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday. Yoan Valat/AP hide caption

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Yoan Valat/AP

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a video conference call with French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi on efforts to develop a vaccine and treatment against the new coronavirus, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday.

Yoan Valat/AP

When French President Emmanuel Macron addressed his countrymen this week to tell them they would have to stay inside another month, national media regarded his speech as raking in the highest TV audience ratings the country had ever seen.

Commander in Chief Macron now seems to have the attention and respect of much of the nation. What a difference a year — and a pandemic — makes.

COVID-19 has ravaged Europe for weeks, with almost 1 million confirmed cases and over 90,000 deaths as of Friday, according to European Union figures. But that has not dented the popularity of its leaders — au contraire, the crisis has given many of them a boost.

In early 2019, Yellow Vest protesters, angry at what they regarded as Macron's authoritative style, wreaked havoc on the streets of Paris every Saturday and put a dent in the French economy.

In February, Macron's approval rating was 29%. These days, it has shot up to 51%. It's the first time he has enjoyed a majority approval rating since January 2018.

Political editorialist Christophe Barbier says the French president's popularity boost is not necessarily about Macron himself.

"French people always support the president during wars," he says. "Emmanuel Macron said we are at war. And during a war we rally around the flag. French people always did that in history, even during the defeats. They rallied around Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814 and around Marshal [Philippe] Pétain in 1940 during the Second World War. Those were disasters. But everybody was behind the commander in chief, and I think it is the same phenomenon with Macron and his government."

Barbier says Macron made the right decisions, just too late. "After Italy, we knew that it was not just a big flu, but a plague," says Barbier.

And yet Macron still waited before he locked France down. Barbier believes there will be a huge reckoning on how the government handled the crisis once it is over.

In hard-hit Italy

Marc Lazar, head of the Center for History at France's Sciences Po university, says a similar thing is playing out in Italy.

"Because the Italians are so fearful in the midst of this terrible crisis, they are standing behind their institutions for the moment," he says. "But I'm not sure Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will be so popular when Italy comes out of the crisis."

Lazar points out that the Italian premier has no political experience, no parliament members and no party. "His high popularity is linked to the intensity of the epidemic," he says.

Lines from Conte's speeches have turned into popular slogans, such as "We remain apart now, to embrace more strongly tomorrow."

Germany's handling

In Germany, the coronavirus outbreak has boosted the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, most notably within her Christian Democratic Union party, says Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Many in the CDU were just waiting for her to move on," she says of the leader, who leaves office next year. "Her support really dropped during the migration crisis but the coronavirus has brought 'crisis manager' Merkel back."

Puglierin says 80% of Germans approve of Merkel's handling of the epidemic and her party's leadership battle has been put on hold. "Nobody talks about this anymore and everybody just seems to be happy that she is back in the lead," she says.

Merkel, a scientist by training, has been driving the conversation and addressing the public directly, according to Puglierin. The leader was upfront from the beginning, telling Germans that 60% to 70% of them could eventually contract the virus.

"She appealed to people early on to behave reasonably and to stay inside," Puglierin says.

That strategy seems to be working as Germany is flattening its curve and has a far lower death rate than other countries.

Boris Johnson's about-face

In the United Kingdom, though he has faced criticism for downplaying the seriousness of the virus in the beginning and putting confinement measures in place too late, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also gained popularity during the crisis.

After contracting and surviving COVID-19, Johnson has done an about-face on how to deal with the epidemic.

In a video after his recovery last Sunday, Johnson thanked the National Health Service for saving his life. He said the country is making progress against the virus because the "public formed a human shield around their country's greatest asset," the NHS.

Puglierin says Johnson has used his experience effectively.

"Boris Johnson has an ability to connect with the people on an emotional level," she says. "That is maybe because of his charisma or maybe now because a lot of people followed his COVID-19 experience quite closely."

But she says Johnson may be the leader who loses the most when it's all over.

During the campaign for Brexit, Johnson claimed that money paid to the European Union would now go into the coffers of the NHS. But that has not been the case.

Puglierin says Britain is completely unprepared for this crisis and she believes it will ultimately be the worst affected country in Europe.

"[Johnson] is playing up his popularity with people well now," she says. "But in the long haul he promised a better NHS. And he won't be able to deliver."

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli contributed reporting from Rome.