President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday faced anger from opponents and chaos in parliament after issuing a provocative warning to people in France not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 that he would pressure them as much as possible by limiting access to key aspects of life.
Macron, who has not yet formally declared his candidacy for re-election in April, came under fire from challengers already in the race, accusing him of overstepping the line with his remarks.
The uproar prompted a new delay in the passing of legislation aimed at tightening France’s Covid rules at a time when the country is facing record daily infection rates fuelled by the Omicron strain of the virus.
“As for the non-vaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” he told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview, using the French verb “emmerder”.
Derived from the word “merde” which means “shit”, the word is considered vulgar slang in France.
This would mean “limiting as much as possible their access to activities in social life,” he added.
“We have to tell (the unvaccinated)… you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema,” the president said.
“We will continue to do this, to the end. This is the strategy,” Macron added.
According to government figures, 91 percent of French over-18s are fully vaccinated.
– Pique in parliament –
The rate surged over the summer after the introduction of a “health pass” which restricted many activities to those with proof of vaccination, a recent negative test or recovery from coronavirus infection.
But that still leaves millions of people not covered as the Omicron wave breaks over the country.
In response, Macron’s government plans to make vaccination the only way to maintain access to much of public life with a so-called “vaccine pass” introduced from January 15.
Parliamentary debate over the tightening was already acrimonious, with the opposition forcing a delay in the debate over the draft law late Monday.
Macron’s comments quickly derailed action in the chamber after it resumed late Tuesday, again suspending examination of the bill and jeopardising the government’s timetable for it to come into force.
The president of the session Marc Le Fur said the atmosphere in the National Assembly did not offer “conditions for a calm working environment”.
The head of the right-wing Republicans (LR) in the chamber, Damien Abad, slammed “unworthy, irresponsible and premeditated” remarks which showed “childish cynicism”.
Meanwhile, the party’s leader Christian Jacob said the group “refused to endorse a text which aims to piss off the French”.
The controversy has erupted amid an increasingly febrile pre-election atmosphere in France. Macron said in the interview he wants to stand for a second term in April’s presidential vote but that declaring his intentions now would distract from managing the health crisis.
– Presidential race –
Opponents accused the president of going too far with the language of his warning.
“It’s not up to the president of the Republic to pick out good and bad French people,” Macron’s top challenger, Republicans candidate Valerie Pecresse, told broadcaster CNews.
She called for a government “that unites people and calms things down”.
Macron “has never felt himself to be president of all French people,” far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen charged. Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon called the vaccine pass plan “collective punishment against individual freedom”.
Other critics mocked the president’s claim last month that “I’ve learned to have a lot more respect for everyone”, after he previously earned a reputation for sometimes tactless comments.
A former investment banker with little experience of retail politics before sweeping to power in 2017, Macron was accused of talking down to voters in the early years of his presidency and faced a months-long backlash from “yellow vest” protesters.
But Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe told France 2 television that he backed his old boss.
“The president doesn’t want fully vaccinated people to be subject to restrictions because eight to 10 percent of the population refuses,” he said.
“I think there’s a large majority of people who agree”.
Macron, who was elected in 2017 on a pledge to reform France and restore its status as a global power, is the overwhelming favourite to win the election but analysts caution his victory is far from certain.
His most potent rival could prove to be Pecresse.