PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron’s brash, vulgar comments that he wants to make life difficult for the unvaccinated have sparked a furor amid already-heated debate in the French parliament about introducing a vaccine pass.
“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off. And so, we’re going to continue doing so, until the end. That’s the strategy,” Macron told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview published late Tuesday.
Currently, French people have to present a COVID-19 immunity passport — including proof of vaccination or of a negative test — to enter restaurants, cafés, museums and other public spaces. The government is seeking to harden conditions for the unvaccinated by no longer making a negative test an option to get the immunity passport. In effect the new, ramped-up pass means banning the unvaccinated from many public venues.
The measure is currently going through the National Assembly, where the debate ran aground for the second consecutive day in the early hours of Wednesday morning as a result of Macron’s comments.
France is currently battling a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections, with daily cases reaching record highs due to the Omicron variant.
Macron made clear that his aim was to hassle a minority who don’t want to take the jab.
“It’s only a very small minority of people who is against [the vaccine]. How do you tackle them? You do so, I’m sorry to say, by pissing them off,” he said in the interview with Le Parisien.
“I don’t want to piss the French off. I complain all day against the administration when it puts hurdles in their way. But the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” he said, adding that the government was going to tell them “you can’t go to the restaurant, you can’t go for a drink, you can’t have a coffee … ”
Opposition parties lash out
Macron was quickly accused of lacking presidential decorum. He used the slang word “emmerder,” a common word meaning to make life difficult, but that is not used in polite discourse.
“It’s not up to the president of the Republique to sift the good citizens from the bad,” said Valérie Pécresse, his conservative rival in April’s presidential election. “We do not need to divide France, divide the French. We need to reconcile this country.”
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen condemned the remarks “of unprecedented vulgarity and violence from a President of the Republic.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, left-wing presidential contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: “Astonishing admission of #Macron. It is clear the #PassVaccinal [vaccine pass] is a collective punishment against individual freedom.”
The remarks have sparked an intense debate in France over the dignity of the president and the divisive nature of his approach.
But with only four months to go before the election, Macron is also seen as calculatedly going on the offensive, using the management of the COVID-19 pandemic to put his opponents on the back foot. In recent months, opposition parties have struggled to make a mark on the issue, appearing either muddled or in agreement with the government.
With polls saying that a majority of the French are in favor of introducing a vaccine pass, many supporters of the president bank that his comments will chime with the feelings of ordinary French people who want to get back to normality.
“90 percent of the French are vaccinated, it’s a majority that is exasperated with the restrictions,” said a close adviser to Macron in comments to Playbook Paris. “There’s a big difference between what’s on Twitter and real life and what people really think.”
Another government adviser thought Macron was taking a leaf from the playbook of far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who is viewed as saying what real people think at home “sitting on their sofas.”
Scoring political victories
Debates on the vaccine pass are expected to resume Wednesday, behind the original schedule set by the government. And the comments from Macron will not make things any smoother.
On Monday, debates were abruptly halted when opposition MPs decided to vote against prolonging proceedings beyond midnight, usually a formality when important draft legislation is being discussed.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jean Castex, a usually sanguine figure, lambasted what was seen as a minor victory for the conservatives.
“It’s not responsible, it’s not responsible … The virus is galloping, and you are pulling on the hand break,” he said in the chamber. “What will our follow countrymen think of these shenanigans?”
Macron is no stranger to taking political gambles. And on this topic, a majority will agree with him that the unvaccinated should be encouraged to take the jab as cases in France spiral.
In the same interview which could come back to haunt him, Macron also said antivaxxers were “undermining the solidity of the nation” and that their irresponsibility meant “they were no longer citizens.”
Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.