PARIS – The brave, vulgar comments of French President Emmanuel Macron that he wants to make life difficult for the unvaccinated have sparked a furore in the midst of an already heated debate in the French parliament over the introduction of a vaccine passport.
“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off. And then we will continue to do so until the end. That is the strategy, “Macron told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview published late Tuesday.
Currently, French people must present a COVID-19 immunity passport – including proof of vaccination or a negative test – to enter restaurants, cafes, museums and other public spaces. The government seeks to tighten conditions for the unvaccinated by no longer turning a negative test into an opportunity to obtain an immunity passport. In reality, the new, stepped-up passport means banning unvaccinated people from many public venues.
The measure is currently being reviewed by the National Assembly, where the debate stalled for the second day in a row early Wednesday morning as a result of Macron’s comments.
France is currently battling a new wave of COVID-19 infections, with daily cases reaching record highs due to the Omicron variant.
Macron made it clear that his goal was to bother a minority who do not want to take the plunge.
“Only a very small minority of people are against it [the vaccine]. How do you tackle them? You do, I’m sorry to say, by pissing them off, ”he said in the interview with Le Parisien.
“I do not want to piss the French out. I complain all day about the administration when it puts obstacles in their way. But the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off, “he said, adding that the government would tell them,” you can not go to restaurant, you can not go for a drink, you can not have a coffee … “
The opposition parties strike out
Macron was quickly accused of lacking the president’s decor. He used the slang word “piss off“, a common word meaning to make life difficult, but it is not used in polite discourse.
“It is not up to the President of the Republic to target the good citizens from the bad ones,” said Valérie Pécresse, his conservative rival in the April presidential election. “We do not have to divide France, divide the French. We have to reconcile this country.”
The far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen condemned the remarks “on unprecedented vulgarity and violence by a President of the Republic.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: “Amazing admission of #Macron. That is clear #PassVaccinal [vaccine pass] is a collective punishment against individual freedom. “
The statements have sparked an intense debate in France about the dignity of the president and the divisive nature of his approach.
But with just four months to go before the election, Macron is also seen as calculated to go on the offensive by using the leadership of the COVID-19 pandemic to put his opponents on the back burner. In recent months, opposition parties have struggled to mark the issue, and they have seemed either confused or in agreement with the government.
With opinion polls saying a majority of French people are in favor of introducing a vaccine passport, many supporters of the president say his comments will be in line with the sentiments of ordinary French people who want to return to normalcy.
“90 percent of French people are vaccinated, a majority are annoyed by the restrictions,” a close adviser to Macron said in comments to Playbook Paris. “There’s a big difference between what’s on Twitter and real life and what people are really thinking.”
Another government adviser thought Macron took a leaf from the handbook of right-wing extremist presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, which is considered to say what real people think at home “sitting on their couches.”
To score political victories
Debates over the vaccine passport are expected to resume on Wednesday, following the original timetable set by the government. And the comments from Macron will not make things smoother.
On Monday, debates were abruptly halted as opposition MPs decided to vote against extending the procedure after midnight, usually a formality when important bills are being discussed.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jean Castex, a normally sanguine figure, lamented what was seen as a minor victory for the Conservatives.
“It’s not responsible, it’s not responsible … The virus gallops and you pull your hand,” he said in the hall. “What will our subsequent countrymen think of these quarrels?”
Macron is no stranger to taking political bets. And on this subject, a majority will agree with him that the unvaccinated should be encouraged to take the plunge, as cases in France are spiraling.
In the same interview that could come back to haunt him, Macron also said that antivaxers “undermine the solidity of the nation” and that their irresponsibility meant that “they were no longer citizens.”
Pauline de Saint Remy contributed with reporting.