Europe Doesn’t Want Lockdowns. It Wants Government.

The continent’s second wave of the coronavirus has produced angry protests against state overreach—and new demands for state help.

By Caroline de Gruyter, a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A protester wearing a yellow vest, oven mitts and a protective visor with a sign reading "500,000 euros of tableware, that's a lot of masks Brigitte"  faces gendarmes during a demonstration in Paris, on July 14, 2020.
A protester wearing a yellow vest, oven mitts and a protective visor with a sign reading "500,000 euros of tableware, that's a lot of masks Brigitte" faces gendarmes during a demonstration in Paris, on July 14, 2020. ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP via Getty Images

Matteo Salvini is back. During a demonstration by restaurant owners against new, strict measures to contain the coronavirus last week, the former interior minister from the far-right League party came to pay a visit and “bring solidarity.” With beautifully set but empty dinner tables on the sunlit Pantheon Square as a backdrop, some told him off for not respecting social distancing rules. But others thanked him.

It was a portrait of how the mood in Italy is shifting. Many Italians are getting desperate. Some are starting to question the ability of the government to manage a pandemic crisis that has cost over 40,000 lives in the country since February.

During the first lockdown in Italy, which started in March, there were no demonstrations at all. Initially, Salvini also sharply criticized Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s pandemic response, but Italians severely punished him for it. They clearly didn’t want a spoiler in their midst during a national emergency, and they put their weight behind the government. It was Conte, an outsider once considered too weak to last long, who shot up in the polls—not Salvini.

But since Conte announced a “mini-lockdown” including a nighttime curfew and shop closures last week to combat the second wave of the coronavirus—there were 30,000 new infections in a single day by the end of October—things are suddenly starting to look a little different. Demonstrations have popped up in several cities. Shop owners, workers, and others vented their frustration at the new measures with slogans like “You close us, you pay us.” Some protests were quickly joined by mafiosi, football hooligans, and both anarchist and neo-fascist thugs, all trying to capitalize on the frustration. The streets of Naples even briefly became a battlefield between demonstrators and the police. Salvini and other politicians who largely kept quiet during the first wave took this as a sign that the political hunting season was open again. And they resumed their habitual political bickering.

Will Italy and other European countries be able to maintain political and economic stability, while meeting the public health challenge, in the second phase of the pandemic? For many, this is the key question this fall. Worrying signs, in the form of angry protests and new political movements, have emerged across the continent. (Last week, for instance, the British politician Nigel Farage announced that he would change the name of his Brexit Party to “Reform UK,” a new party with the sole aim of fighting the new lockdowns.) But, examined more closely, and against the sweep of European history, there’s reason to think the protests testify to the opposite of what they seem—to the state’s growing, not diminishing, legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

“Sociohistorically speaking, epidemics and wars have been key moments of state-building,” Samuel Hayat, a French political scientist, recently told Le Monde. He is right. In the face of disaster, citizens usually rally around the flag. They want to trust their leaders. They lose interest in slogans and political panoramas, and simply want the competent authorities to solve the problems instead. The more the government takes the lead and assumes the role of protector, the more citizens respect it. It is in severe crises like these that the state assumes—or reassumes—its authority.

Health care providers all over Europe were quickly stretched to the limit in March, due in part to the fact that governments had trimmed public services for many years. During the spring, many hospitals were desperately overcrowded, and there were shortages of protective gear and equipment. This led to panic, misery, and sometimes cruelty; the elderly were often left to die. In such a situation, one would expect citizens to turn against the state. But that didn’t happen. Instead, support for the government went up—and citizens turned to the state for protection. In several countries, including Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands, the army stepped in to assist care homes, for example.

This also happened in Italy. The country has seen deep cutbacks in health care during the last decades, after the European debt crisis in particular. The regions are responsible for health care, but the financing comes from Rome. Many regions had no reserves and were devastated by shortages of beds, oxygen machines, and personnel. Still, most citizens and political parties supported Conte. He became more confident, developing a role as the “father of the nation” as he regularly addressed citizens directly on television. Over the summer he was cheered for bringing home a large European recovery package from Brussels.

Other European countries have seen similar patterns. Center-right governing parties, especially, saw their popularity rise throughout the crisis before the second wave struck. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democratic Union soared in the polls this spring to over 39 percent, with Merkel scoring a popularity rate of 82 percent. Meanwhile, her coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, trailed behind the Greens with 16 percent approval. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy climbed to 26 percent recently—twice as much as the second party, Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom. The Conservative Austrian People’s Party, led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is also riding high: After a peak of 44 percent support in April, it is currently at 41 percent. Governments in Slovenia, Denmark, and other countries have done well, too.

Far-right protest parties, meanwhile, have lost support since the arrival of the pandemic. The Alternative for Germany party went from nearly 15 percent backing before the crisis to below 10 percent. During local elections in Vienna in early October, the Freedom Party of Austria—polling at just 12 percent support nationwide—went down from 30 percent of the vote to 7 percent. The Italian League, the French National Rally, and the Swiss People’s Party also lost support. All accused the authorities of mismanaging the crisis. But this didn’t work.

People feel insecure and are looking for protection, the Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev recently said during a debate in Vienna: “But populists don’t give protection. They’re just giving expression.”

But in recent weeks, national governments have lost some of their earlier gains again. Populist parties—such as the Dutch Party for Freedom—are recovering somewhat, and they have started supporting street rallies against government coronavirus prevention measures that are emerging in many places. They do this cautiously: Polls show that most citizens still firmly support government restrictions and want a forceful pandemic response. Between June and August, 71 percent of citizens in 9 European countries said their country had done a good job. Just 29 percent believed the government had handled the pandemic poorly.

In fact, many of the demonstrators critical of government measures are themselves asking the government for support. This has nothing to do with the pandemic; it started before that. For example, the yellow vest movement, which emerged as a disruptive force in France last year, was one loud cry for state protection and attention. Demonstrators demanded more provincial hospitals, lower diesel taxes, higher minimum wages and pensions, more low-rent housing, and a prohibition of industrial relocations abroad, among many other things.

The yellow vests have now tried to make a comeback by organizing protests against the government’s coronavirus measures. As ever, they are a collection of individuals with widely different interests. There are small entrepreneurs, nurses, truck drivers, and retirees in their midst, and their rallies have attracted far-right and far-left militants. Other groups protesting coronavirus measures across Europe are remarkably similar in their heterogeneity. Among the activists who regularly gather in Berlin; The Hague, Netherlands; and Bern, Switzerland, are anti-vaccine advocates, restaurant owners, anti-globalists, soccer fans, neo-Nazis and everything in between.

What unites them is their anxiety—and their demand that the state attend to it. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière observed in 2003 that the relationship between individuals and the state “is increasingly determined by a sense of fear.” He wrote this after a long, hot summer, when the French government took special measures to protect the elderly. Many people found this ironic, because at the same time the government was trying to decrease pensions—the idea being that citizens shouldn’t rely too much on the welfare state.

Rancière argued that there was nothing contradictory about the state taking away protection with one hand, while giving it with the other. On the contrary: The more the state withdraws from public life, the more citizens will be forced to beg for protection if disaster strikes. This enables the state to step back in, surfing a wave of fear of the consequences of a scarcity that it has itself created.

Today, the French government’s public health measures come after decades in which it transformed the welfare state to make it more efficient and market-oriented. When the virus arrived, it found individuals who were increasingly alone. Traditional structures that gave them shelter—trade unions, church communities—had melted away, leaving citizens to fend for themselves. And so, when danger loomed, they only had the state to turn to.

French President Emmanuel Macron has told citizens that he is waging a “war” against the virus. Then-Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also rallied citizens of his “great nation” in the fight against a “common enemy.” The link with warfare is not accidental. At the start of World War I, France declared two states of emergency: one military (for obvious reasons), the other public health (in response to any potential dangers from infectious diseases). Leaders have often used war metaphors to consolidate power in the past. The Habsburg Empire established its first official borders with the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century to stop pandemics from coming in. This was a tremendous state-building operation, involving almost a quarter of the imperial army. To be sure, contagion was a genuine concern for the Habsburgs. But the measures also fit into a general centralization of power that was already under way

The more public health measures a state imposes on citizens, the more citizens wish to be protected, the French demographer and historian Patrice Bourdelais once wrote. But the reverse is also true. Public authorities behave more responsibly when the population becomes more demanding on public health.

The fact that demonstrations are now erupting all over Europe and that protest parties are reemerging clearly shows that the patience of the public isn’t endless. Dissatisfaction is growing, and so is the pressure on the state to perform better in this second wave. But as long as citizens are afraid of contagion, citizens will want their governments to do more, not less.


Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, as well as a columnist at Foreign Policy. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway.