PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron has no qualms about "pissing off" France's unvaccinated, as he told a French newspaper Tuesday, railing against their refusal to get their shots and lamenting that “we live in the society of the immediate.”
While Macron’s political opponents promptly condemned his language after the interview was published, it will be quite hard for them to oppose the substance of what he's implementing.
With Macron buried in a hotly contested race for re-election to a second five-year term in April, his comments could seem dangerously impolitic to American ears. But in fact, this couldn't come at a more appropriate — and likely carefully selected — moment for him.
French presidents, unlike most of their American counterparts, who would cower in a corner, well-insulated from prying journalists and their microphones or Twitter accounts rather than insult a major swath of the public, have little trouble trotting out such language at key moments. Their voters are looking for leaders ready to stand up strongly for what they believe in.
Macron, at 44, also benefits from the swagger of youth — and his aspirations to get the rest of Europe in line on Covid after the six-month rotation of official leadership put him in charge of the E.U. on Jan. 1, lending him both confidence and urgency in talking tough.
So when Macron spent more than two hours with the French daily Le Parisien, he did not mince words. When it comes to the nonvaccinated, he said: “I really want to piss them off. And we will continue to do this, to the end. This is the strategy.” (The actual word he used in French is even more, well, colorful: "emmerder" from the French word from "merde," meaning "s---"; hence it conveys the idea of burying them in it.)
“Only a very small minority are resisting,” Macron noted. “How do we reduce that minority? We reduce it — sorry for the expression — by pissing them off even more.”
This doesn’t mean forced vaccinations or prison terms, merely disincentivizing the holdouts. Until now, entry into any restaurant, bar, nightclub, stadium, movie theater or most other indoor venues required a person to present a “sanitary pass” to show they'd either been vaccinated or tested negative for Covid.
But Macron just asked France's Parliament, which his party largely controls, to transform the sanitary pass into a vaccination pass, which means that, beginning Jan. 15, entry would be restricted to those who can prove they’re fully vaccinated. (There was a procedural hiccup before the final parliamentary vote of approval that his harsh words haven’t helped, but it’s still expected to pass.) And from the beginning of January, France has tightened restrictions to require telework for a minimum of three days a week for those who can and limit public indoor gatherings to no more than 2,000 people with every person masked.
Of course, Macron has had an easier time than President Joe Biden in enacting protections from Covid, and calling out those who oppose them, because Biden faces more opposition among the American public to health measures that the French have already largely embraced in their own right, especially with the broad and successful application of the sanitary pass. Some 74 percent of French people have been fully vaccinated versus 62 percent in the United States. And the booster is taking root faster in France as well (34 percent vs. 22 percent).
So while Macron’s political opponents promptly condemned his language after the interview was published, it will be quite hard for them to oppose the substance of what he's implementing. Because it's working.
Indeed, it’s beginning to look as though Macron has managed to move the entire political campaign very much in his direction, at least in this central element of the national debate. Most of his declared challengers have acknowledged the need to treat Covid as the danger it is, announcing they'll be shunning the large-scale rallies that are the hallmark of France's relatively brief campaign in favor of small gatherings and social media.
Center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, for one, said the "campaign won't look like any other one” as she inaugurated her headquarters in Paris. Though candidates on the political extremes, from far-right Marine Le Pen to the Socialists' Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, to Green party candidate Yannick Jadot, have pushed back on some of the harshest limits set by the new rules. But they’ve so far delayed their own events until February or said they'd trim the size of their rallies.
Right now, Macron is leading all of his declared challengers in the early polls. While some of his opponents have taken to needling him on the scope of his Covid-control measures, there has been little sense they have dented the overall popularity, or at least acceptance, of his position.
After all, Macron’s position also rests on the national slogan of "liberté, égalité, fraternité," which, while similar to America's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," puts significantly more emphasis on community.
As someone who has spent a large chunk of his life working and reporting on the French, I have come to believe that freedom in France is something that is enjoyed equally by every individual at the same time that they feel a fraternal obligation to care for their fellow French. As Macron put it on Tuesday, “When my freedoms threaten those of others, I become someone irresponsible. Someone irresponsible is not a citizen.”
This should be the kind of language, or at least a sentiment, that America's leaders embrace, if only they had the courage of Macron and his followers.