PARIS — Faced with a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant, President Emmanuel Macron of France said Wednesday that he wanted to “piss off” millions of his citizens who refuse to get vaccinated by squeezing them out of the country’s public spaces.
Three months before the election, Macron shocked the nation by using vulgarity. This was not only a message for public health, but also for politics. He seemed to be aware that tapping into growing public anger against unvaccinated people would have more electoral benefits than the risk of inflaming an anti-vaccination minority with which he has little chance of ever winning.
Using his harshest language yet to urge the recalcitrant to get their shots, Mr. Macron said he would not “throw them in prison” or “vaccinate them by force.” But he made it clear he meant to make their lives harder.
In doing so, Mr. Macron, an inveterate political gambler who became the nation’s youngest leader ever five years ago, effectively kicked off his campaign for re-election Wednesday, drawing clear lines between his supporters and opponents. He also moved the debate away from topics like immigration and Islam, which have dominated the political race thus far and are favorable to his strongest rivals on the right and right.
Mr. Macron clearly wanted to tap into a rich political vein his counterparts have been less cautious to exploit: anger among the majority vaccinated at a minority who refuses to get vaccinated, and disproportionately occupying hospital beds. According to the government, more French people than 77 per cent and 92 per cent of those aged 12 or older have received at minimum two doses.
“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” Mr. Macron said, using a French word that is more vulgar, explaining that a new, reinforced vaccine pass would make it impossible for the unvaccinated to go to restaurants and cafes, or the theater and cinemas. Their reluctance and the rise in French cases is threatening to undermine Macron’s efforts to combat the pandemic.
Elsewhere in Europe — faced with the same dilemma that the pandemic might not be reined in until the unvaccinated change their minds — leaders have been more hesitant to confront groups opposed to vaccinations that are often well-organized and vocal.
The prospect of being coerced into getting Covid shots in Germany and Austria has led to violent protests and angry statements. Mandatory vaccination has long been dismissed as an option, not least by Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, but has increasingly gained support among politicians and virologists who say that other measures have failed to increase vaccination rates fast enough.
In Germany, Mr. Scholz stressed that he was “chancellor of the unvaccinated, too.” But Germany has excluded unvaccinated people from much of public life and is now debating whether to make vaccination mandatory. Austria will also be implementing mandatory vaccinations next month.
Italy’s government plans to introduce new measures to reduce unvaccinated people. It may make shots mandatory for older adults. But Italy’s large coalition government is struggling to find consensus on the measures, split between center-left groups that are in favor of mandatory vaccination and right-wing parties that are against it.
Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, has not put significant pressure on unvaccinated people. Instead, he prefers to persuade Britons that they should get shots. That is partly because a powerful faction within Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party opposes coronavirus restrictions on libertarian grounds, or worries about their economic impact.
“Clearly, there are a number of leaders who don’t know anymore what to do,” said Adrien Abécassis, who has written about the politics of vaccination and is the head of research at Paris Peace Forum, an organization focusing on international governance.
By contrast, in France, Mr. Macron has steadfastly stuck to a policy of vaccinating as many people as possible, Mr. Abécassis said, “So there is strong legitimacy in having the highest possible vaccination rate. The strategy from the start has been to impose social sanctions of exclusion to those who don’t respect the social norm, which is to get vaccinated.”
Mr. Macron’s comments were published before France again registered a record number of infections on Wednesday evening — 332,000 cases — in the previous 24 hours, as the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeps across the country and the rest of Europe. The president was also reacting to moves this week by opposition lawmakers to delay the passage in Parliament of a bill that would make it possible to obtain France’s health pass only through vaccination and no longer with a negative test.
The rapid spread of Omicron has strained Mr. Macron’s successful pandemic strategy and an underlying unwritten social contract between the government and the people. In return for agreeing to get vaccinated, the government has offered the French a near-normal life since last summer, with few of the more serious restrictions that France’s neighbors have reimposed.
Nearly 92% of French 12 year olds and older have received at most two doses. This surprising feat is in a country that was one the most distrusting of vaccines just one year ago. Mr. Macron’s bet last summer on the twin powers of vaccines and health passports proved popular and contributed to his positive approval rating — about 40 percent, a high level compared to those of his predecessors in the same period before their own bids for re-election.
However, five million French, including four millions adults, have not received a single shot.
Mr. Macron’s use of a vulgar expression was clearly meant to tap into the growing anger by the overwhelming majority of vaccinated people against the unvaccinated minority, said Stewart Chau, an analyst for the polling firm Viavoice and a sociologist.
“Creating divisions around the issue of the pandemic is what the president of the republic tried to do by saying out loud what others are thinking quietly,” Mr. Chau said, adding that the word would speak to a “public opinion that, after two years of a health crisis, is worn-out and exhausted” as well as more “irritable and emotional.”
The president’s rivals attacked his use of the vulgarity as “unworthy of a president,” “shocking” and “divisive.”
Gabriel Attal, the government spokesman, pushed back, saying that the president’s choice of language represented only a fraction of “the anger of the great majority of French people confronted with the choice to oppose vaccination.”
“Let’s speak frankly — who pisses off whom?” Mr. Attal said, adding that it was those “who refuse to be vaccinated” who are “ruining the lives” of health care workers, the elderly, and those working in theaters, restaurants and other businesses.
Mr. Macron studiously used the word “emmerder,” which is translated literally as “to mire in excrement” and means to “annoy” or “to give a hard time to.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic – Key Facts to Know
The global surge. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. Therefore, governments are focusing more attention on expanding vaccination rather than limiting spread.
Technically, Mr. Macron has not yet declared his candidacy for the April election. Mr. Macron has been coyly deflecting any questions about his candidacy for months.
Last month, during a long television interview, Mr. Macron said he regretted harsh words he had used in the past on other issues — and which had helped create an image of him as an elitist politician disconnected from the people. In a speech, he had once divided people into two categories: “Those who succeed and those who are nothing.”
Mr. Chau, the pollster, said that Mr. Macron’s use of crude slang would probably not weaken his core support. But it could alienate the undecided by reviving Mr. Macron’s image of arrogance.
“It’s the overriding character trait of Emmanuel Macron that he’s never been able to shake off,” Mr. Chau said.
Mr. Macron used the crude slang — not once, but three times — in a reply to a reader of the daily newspaper “Le Parisien.” In interviews organized at the Élysée Palace, Mr. Macron replied to various questions, including to a woman who pointed out that the unvaccinated occupied most of the beds in intensive care units and prevented others, including cancer patients, from getting the care they needed.
Mr. Macron said the unvaccinated were a rebellious minority whose numbers he planned to shrink by “pissing them off.”
“In democracy, the worst enemies are lies and stupidity,” he said.
Mr. Macron appeared to be hewing to a strategy — expressed by his allies in recent months — of portraying himself as the candidate of “reason” and solidifying his hold on the center.
His words also targeted an electorate that is unlikely vote for him. This was evident by the strongest reaction to the language he used, especially from the extreme right and left.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader, accused Mr. Macron of promoting “collective punishment against individual freedom.”
Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader and one of Mr. Macron’s main rivals, accused him of “waging war” on the unvaccinated. Eric Zemmour, the far-right TV pundit and another leading competitor, said Mr. Macron’s words revealed his cruelty toward a class of “despised French.”
Reporting was provided by Aurelien BreedenParis Katrin BennholdBerlin Gaia PianigianiRome and Stephen CastleLondon
Source: NY Times