Our research finds that the public in Germany and Italy strongly approve of how Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Conte have handled the coronavirus crisis, with 63% of German respondents saying they approve of Angela Merkel’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and 61% of Italian respondents saying they approve of Giuseppe Conte’s handling. Only 16% disapprove of Angela Merkel’s and 18% of Giuseppe Conte’s actions to control the pandemic. On the other hand, only minorities in France (29%) and Great Britain (30%) approve of how President Macron and Prime Minister Johnson have handled the coronavirus crisis, whereas pluralities in both countries (41% in France and 48% in Great Britain) disapprove of their handling.
Approval levels for the leaders of the four countries polled broadly reflect the current incidence of coronavirus cases in each country, with Britain and France suffering from a more serious second wave of the pandemic than Germany and Italy at this stage.
However, our research also indicates that coronavirus approval ratings for country leaders are reflections of existing political divisions. In France, support for Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is sharply divided along partisan lines. Whereas 47% of those who voted for Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the 2017 Presidential Election approve of how the President has handled the pandemic, only 20% of those who voted for Marine Le Pen in the second round approve of Emmanuel Macron’s coronavirus handling. Nevertheless, even though President Macron commands the approval of a strong plurality of those that voted for him in 2017, a quarter (25%) of his 2017 voters disapprove of how he has handled the pandemic.
In Great Britain, approval of Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic is similarly divided along political lines. Currently, 52% of 2019 Conservative voters approve of how the Prime Minister has handled the crisis, compared to just 19% of 2019 Labour voters and 13% of Liberal Democrat voters. However, 27% of Boris Johnson’s own 2019 voters disapprove of his handling of the pandemic.
Although public approval or disapproval of European leaders may be dependent on political allegiance, the public across Britain, France, Germany, and Italy continue to think that the worst of the pandemic is yet to come. While Italians are somewhat more optimistic (41% think the worst is yet to come, compared to majorities of 51-55% in Britain, France, and Germany), a strong plurality of the Italian public still believe the worst of the pandemic is yet to come. Therefore, our research suggests that varying levels of trust in their country’s leadership have a limited impact on whether the public thinks the second wave of coronavirus will be more severe than the first one.
Despite the majority of German and Italian respondents approving of how Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Conte have handled the coronavirus pandemic in Germany and Italy, there has been a noticeable increase in pessimism about the timeline of the pandemic since July. Whereas only 37% of German respondents in July thought the worst of the pandemic was yet to come, this figure has since risen to 51%. Likewise, whereas only 28% of Italian respondents in July thought the worst was yet to come, this figure is now at 41%, which represents the plurality of respondents.
On the other hand, pessimism in France has remained consistently high since at least July, when 56% thought the worst of the pandemic was yet to come, compared to 55% who currently think so. In Britain, the shift from optimism to pessimism happened earlier: whereas in early June only 30% of British respondents thought the worst of the pandemic was yet to come, this figure had risen to 47% by early July, and currently stands at 55%. Therefore, one consequence of the lower coronavirus approval ratings of Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson throughout the summer is that the public in Britain and France tempered their expectations of what a second wave of the pandemic might look like relatively early on in the summer. On the other hand, respondents in Germany and Italy became rather confident that they had overcome the worst of the pandemic by July, meaning that Germans and Italians are now having their optimism dampened by the rising number of cases in both countries.
Despite the sharp increase in pessimism about the timeline of the pandemic in Germany and Italy, the majority of German (62%) and Italian (54%) respondents continue to believe their governments are currently taking the right measures to address the pandemic. On the other hand, only 33% of British respondents and 32% of French respondents consider that their governments are taking appropriate measures. Overall, the majority in Britain (54%) and France (56%) thinks that their governments are currently not taking the right measures to address the pandemic.
One aspect in which British respondents differ from their continental counterparts is when it comes to predicting the likelihood of a second nationwide lockdown. Whereas 45-49% of French, German, and Italian respondents think a second nationwide lockdown is likely in their country, this figure is significantly higher among British respondents (60%). Indeed, only 27% of British respondents think a second nationwide lockdown in Britain is unlikely, compared to 39-41% of respondents in the other three countries. Although all four countries have pursued a strategy of local lockdowns in their quest to contain the second wave of the pandemic (including Paris being raised to maximum alert), British respondents—perhaps influenced by media reports—are the most likely to think that their government will eventually abandon this strategy and shift to a nationwide lockdown.
British respondents are also the most likely to say they would support a second nationwide lockdown, with 58% saying they would support and 29% saying they would oppose. They are followed by German respondents, 53% of whom would support a second nationwide lockdown. On the other hand, only 38% of French respondents and 45% of Italian respondents say they would support another nationwide lockdown.
Indeed, the French public is noticeably more hostile to lockdowns than respondents in the remaining three countries. Whereas 63% of British respondents and 58% of German respondents believe lockdowns will continue to be necessary until there is a vaccine or other solution, only 39% of French respondents share this view. On the other hand, a plurality (43%) of French respondents think we should not lockdown again and must get used to living with the virus, a view that is only shared by 27% of British respondents and 35% of German respondents. Meanwhile, Italian respondents lie somewhere in the middle and are rather sharply divided, with 50% saying lockdowns will continue to be necessary and 42% saying we must get used to living with the virus.
Despite the difference in how French and German respondents feel about the necessity for future lockdowns, respondents in both countries are almost equally as likely to say they would fully adhere to the rules in the event of a second lockdown (53% in Germany and 56% in France). This rate of full adherence is lower than among British (64%) and Italian (65%) respondents, yet compliance cannot be measured accurately until (and if) further national lockdowns are initiated. Thus, although French respondents are less likely to believe that countries should continue to lockdown until there is a vaccine, their stated likely rate of compliance with the rules would not be fundamentally lower than in Germany. British respondents are the most likely of all four countries to say they would fully or mostly adhere to the new lockdown rules.
One possible reason why French compliance rates may be similar to German compliance rates lies in the fact that French respondents currently feel much more unsafe engaging in everyday tasks compared to German respondents. For example, whereas strong majorities in Britain (78%) and Germany (77%) feel safe leaving their home at all, the majority of French respondents (56%) continue to report feeling unsafe leaving their home at all as a result of coronavirus.
Thus, even though the French public is much more sceptical than the German public about the efficacy of lockdowns or the effectiveness of their government’s approach to handling the pandemic, the higher rates of infection in France have translated into a Germany-level willingness to comply with rules that they would otherwise view as unreasonable. Conversely, the lower rates of coronavirus incidence in Germany might be encouraging some German respondents to take a more relaxed approach to social distancing rules, thus leading to a significant proportion saying that they would not fully comply with lockdown rules.
Although both German and Italian respondents have expressed a similar increase in pessimism over the timeline of the pandemic since July, they now differ significantly in their expectations of when the pandemic will be over. Whereas a majority (54%) of German respondents think the coronavirus crisis will not be over by this time next year, a slight plurality (37%) of Italian respondents think it will be over by then. This contrast is particularly interesting if one remembers that German and Italian respondents are almost equally as likely to approve of how their heads of government have handled the pandemic so far (63% and 61% respectively).
One thing is for certain: the public in Europe still takes the threat of coronavirus seriously, with 67-71% of British, German, and Italian respondents saying the coronavirus situation in Europe has not been exaggerated. Even among the otherwise sceptical French, a majority (53%) agrees that the coronavirus situation in France has not been exaggerated.