François Legault's approval ratings fall back to earth as Quebec tries to reopen

Quebec Premier François Legault had approval ratings better than any other leader in the country thanks to his early handling of the pandemic. Not anymore.

Shutting things down might prove politically easier than opening them up

While he's still getting strong support for his performance, Quebec Premier François Legault no longer has the near-universal approval ratings he had at the beginning of the pandemic. (Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press)

People are hungry for leadership in a time of crisis. Quebec Premier François Legault provided that in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic — and for his handling of the outbreak he was given higher marks than any other leader in the country.

When the pandemic hit, public health officials called for decisive actions to shut things down — actions most people seemed to agree with in Quebec and elsewhere. But now that Legault's government has started to open things up again, polls suggest he's heading into choppier waters.

In early April, Legault's performance was met with near-unanimous acclaim. Polling by Léger for the Association for Canadian Studies put Quebecers' stated satisfaction with his government's management of the pandemic at 95 per cent. Even as the crisis boosted voter support for leaders across Canada, Legault's surge was astonishing.

The latest Léger survey, however, now puts satisfaction with Legault at 81 per cent in Quebec — very healthy by any measure, but no longer unusual. In fact, his government's rating is now lower than the ones given by Ontarians and Atlantic Canadians to their provincial governments.

This shift has been recorded across multiple polls, both by Léger and other polling firms. EKOS Research found approval for Legault's handling of the pandemic down 11 percentage points between mid-March and early May. An Ipsos/Global News survey found it down by 13 points between early April and mid-May.

In a CROP poll, the number of Quebecers rating their satisfaction with Legault's performance at seven or higher on a scale of one to 10 fell to 72 per cent from 90 per cent in early April.

Quebecers' pandemic worries rising again

Legault's approval ratings have fallen to the levels of mere mortals for several reasons. Quebec continues to have the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths anywhere in the country. The Greater Montreal area is one of the world's hotspots for the disease.

And the messaging from the Quebec government has been inconsistent. Legault has set dates for reopening the economy and returning children to school that he was unable to keep in Montreal. From one day to the next, the risks facing people between the ages of 60 and 69 returning to work suddenly shifted — as did the premier's argument that achieving (so far unproven) herd immunity was a reason to return kids to classes.

Polls suggest Quebecers are the Canadians least fearful of the pandemic (with important linguistic differences) — but they also indicate that their worries are rising again. According to Léger, only 17 per cent of Quebecers feel that the worst of the crisis is behind them — that's lower than anywhere else in Canada.

CROP found that the percentage of Quebecers saying they are worried about the spread of COVID-19 has increased again to 35 per cent, after dropping to 26 from 41 per cent over multiple polls between late March and early April.

Trudeau, Ford numbers holding

The shift in opinion about Legault's handling of the outbreak stands in contrast to how Canadians rate the performance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Léger found satisfaction with the federal government's performance standing at 77 per cent, virtually unchanged from where it has stood over the last month. Léger's weekly tracking survey has pegged satisfaction with the federal government at between 76 and 79 per cent since mid-April.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's approval ratings for his handling of the pandemic have held steady in recent weeks. (Jack Bold/The Canadian Press)

Ford, who announced this week that all schools would remain closed at least until the fall, also saw satisfaction with his government's performance hold steady in recent weeks in polling by both Léger (86 per cent) and Ipsos (82 per cent).

The fact that Trudeau and Ford are seeing their numbers hold firm while Legault's have dropped suggests that the decrease in support for Legault's approach is not a natural consequence of a dissipating crisis-induced surge. It does suggest, however, that the near-universal esteem in which he was held at the beginning of the pandemic was unsustainable — particularly once more controversial decisions about reopening had to be made.

Legault still in an enviable position

None of this suggests that Legault is in trouble (although he's probably hoping the trend lines stabilize). While he is no longer head-and-shoulders above his provincial and federal counterparts, he still rates better than most.

And Léger found that 81 per cent of Quebecers say they have a good opinion of the premier, with just 14 per cent holding a bad opinion. The pandemic has helped boost those numbers — his net rating has increased by 30 points since the end of 2019.

Trudeau's has increased by 14 points in Quebec, but is nowhere near as dazzling: 52 per cent of Quebecers say they have a good opinion of the prime minister, while 45 per cent say they hold a bad one.

After initially low ratings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has seen satisfaction with his government's handling of the pandemic hold steady between 76 and 79 per cent since mid-April, according to polling by Léger. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Legault's own political rivals hardly compare. Just 30 per cent of Quebecers hold a good opinion of Dominique Anglade, the newly-named leader of the opposition Quebec Liberal Party, while 22 per cent have a bad opinion of her.

If an election were held today (the next vote is scheduled for 2022), polls suggest Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec would win easily.

But the uniquely sharp slide in Quebecers' views of Legault's handling of the pandemic still could serve as a warning to leaders across the country. The next phase of reopening society from its pandemic-induced lockdown will involve public health risks — and some political ones as well.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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