Originally published on visualcultureweekly.wordpress.com on April 2, 2020.
The polls are in. People are reacting to how their leaders are handling the current pandemic. As the crisis, physical distancing, emergency measures and closed borders drag one, people are starting to react strongly to their governments handling of the situation. As a general rule, most heads of state have enjoyed a slight bump in approval. European leaders, overall, are faring quite well, whereas leaders who delayed actions to fight the spread of the virus on their territories, such as the US’ Donald Trump and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, find themselves at the lower end of the scale. What we can quickly see with these latest polls is that the more proactive and participatory a leader is, the better they are perceived.
Within Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been attributed a quite decent score of 64% by his constituents. Most provincial Premiers rank closely to the PM—or slightly better—except for one obvious outlier, and that is Québec’s François Legault. The Coalition Avenir Quebec majority leader has a whopping 93% approval rating when it comes to his handling of the crisis according the latest Angus Reid Institute poll.
The strong difference in numbers between the two leaders can be explained by two main factors. First, the political landscapes they both inherited upon their elections suggests different expectations from their constituents as to how they should act in times of crisis. Second, these expectations, informed by regional realities, greatly influence the public response to each leader’s public relation strategies which, for one of them, was perhaps conveniently limited.
Let’s look at how images of both politicians form the first week of the crisis can help us better understand these numbers.
Trudeau: The Stay-at-home Dad
For Trudeau, whose numbers are good, but not great, we can attribute his scoring to the particularly divided political terrain that is Canadian Parliament. Trudeau faces a rather strong conservative opposition with an above average COVID-19 scepticism among their political base. This, mixed with growing tensions between regional political elites, a growing Alberta independence movement, and recent Indigenous protests that revealed major cracks in the Liberal government’s relations with First Nations peoples and their representatives, explain why not everyone is quick to stand behind the Prime Minister. These numbers might not only reflect his leadership in times of COVID-19, but perhaps reflect previous thoughts on his government.
One thing that happened early on in the COVD-19 pandemic had a significant impact on Trudeau’s public image during these times. On March 12th, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s wife, was diagnosed with the disease. This meant the Prime Minister would immediately begin a two week-long quarantine in his Ottawa residence. This would end up shaping how he presented himself to the public in a major way.
Although quite a serious thing to happen (she has since gotten the all-clear), it did represent a curious situation as to the Prime Minister’s possibilities for public relations. This allowed for his image to be tightly controlled. He could only appear for a limited amount of time, alone, and from a distance to cameramen and journalists. Less chances for slip-ups.
What we have seen coming out of 24 Sussex has been an intelligent use of this situation through the creation of a visual narrative, that of the work at home father getting through this crisis like the rest of us and giving us the feel of continuity and stability.
As of the first day of Trudeau’s quarantine, an official photo of him at his desk began circulating and was used as a still image during phone interviews with televised media outlets. The photo taken from a hallway, much like the first images of his facial hair back in January, give us a feeling of intimacy, as though we are in the house with him, distant enough to not bother him while he is on the phone. We see him at work in an office representing an interesting combination of aesthetics which reveal the two elements this narrative is pushing: he is just like us, but he is running a G7 nation. We find him in an office that could be similar to what many people have in their homes. A small room with a few IKEA-esque bookshelves. But that desk, though. The desk sticks out like a sore thumb. A clunky, heavy, antique looking desk serving as a reminder of who he is, the institution he represents and the history, legacy, and longevity of it all. The message: He may be at home with a cool Mac and cluttered shelves like some of us, but this is still the Prime Minister’s Office, don’t forget.
A few days later, another image was released. Trudeau, at the same desk, on a video conference call with leaders of the other G7 leaders. We push a similar narrative. We are shown drawings his children made (we assume), and an adorable pencil holder also made by one of his children (again, we assume). We are reminded he is a father, and, let us not forget, doing his job… like we all should. If he can do, so should we.
Trudeau has been praised for the strong sense of continuity and stability he as embodied throughout this period; the official images released reveal this is what they want him to represent. It is working well, but now that Grégoire-Trudeau has clean bill of health, will we see a change in his PR strategies? We will see him take a different approach or we will stick to what has been sorta working?
Legault: The Fashionably Friendly Leader
While Trudeau can boast a fairly decent standing amongst world leaders, the local politician that takes the proverbial cake is clearly the Québécois Premier François Legault. Coming in with a whopping 94% approval rating, some say he might actually be the most popular head of state in the world. These numbers, of course, are not only a reflection of the public perception of the measures put in place by the government (massive testing, financial aid, confinement orders, etc), but also the way he, as leader of the government, has presented himself to the public. In the case of Québec’s Premier, his extreme popularity can be explained by a somewhat perfect storm that Trudeau could not count on: A strong majority government with a penchant for populism and the ability to physically (and visually) present himself as a leader.
The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), led by François Legault, was elected with a strong majority in October of 2018. Though not a surprising victory, it did represent a turning point in Québécois politics as it broke a decades-long shared power between the sovereigntist Parti Québécois and the federalist Parti Libéral. The two clear winners in these last elections were, evidently, the CAQ, but also the left-wing party Québec Solidaire who won more seats that night than the Parti Québécois. A historical shift in power. Quebecers went for new parties that represented a break from traditional politics.
The CAQ won by proposing stronger representation for non-urban regions and a series of proposals that could be described as populist in nature, to say the least: tougher immigration laws focused on language and national identity, a ban on religious symbols, reforms in early childhood education, just to name a few. Voters turned out massively in support of the CAQ, and that mostly came from non-urban, older, white, catholic, French-speaking voters —leaving Montreal as the only region without CAQ MNAs. Legault’s support is thus, popular, very popular, and his handling of the crisis has reflected that.
He has managed his image to reflect a proactive, tough, straightforward, no nonsense approach his supporters have come to expect from him. The emphasis, unlike Trudeau, was placed more on seeming as though normalcy was possible (we can associate this with the #cavabienaller trend sweeping the province). Legault has switched to a particularly more stylish attire than usual during his daily press releases. The brand logos on his clothes are prominently featured, as are his watches. He has even been praised by political pundits for bringing back the idea of the « Sunday best » into québécois mainstream culture. The message here says that whatever may happen, we need to act as though things are under control, we cannot lose our sense of control, or even our sense of self.
The fashionably friendly face of the provincial government has been boosted by a now staple of COVID-19 Québécois visual culture, Dr Horacio Arruda, head of public health for the Government of Québec. The pair have been seen side-by-side, sitting quite closely, during daily press releases and have occasionally shared on-screen laughs (see above images). The Premier was quick to utilize the quirky public administrator—know for this unorthodox humour and colloquial way of speaking—to further push the narrative that all will be well.
The daily briefings have even given fodder to meme pages and YouTube parody accounts with the flood of « quotables » pronounced by the Premier and his team. From winking to the camera when mentioning that liquor stores will be kept open, to creating awareness campaigns to get older québécois to stay home using terms from the joual sociolect and popular imagery (« Envoye à maison »), Legault has simultaneously played to his base and given younger generations reasons to engage with the government press releases in their own way.
Although both leaders can be described as presenting similar images of continuity under pressure. They have gone about it in quite different ways, and these differences stem from their electoral bases. Trudeau chose to focus on relatability and distance, a very centrist liberal strategy. His base possibly responding better to the humbler image of a man working from home, looking at his kids’ art. Legault chose to present himself as a « legend », charming and strong to the older voters, funny to the younger ones. However, it will be interesting to see, as the numbers change rapidly in the coming weeks, how these initial strategies will adapt to new circumstances, and how quickly constituents will react.