Macron’s blunt vow to ‘piss off’ the unvaccinated takes aim at centrist voters

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French President Emmanuel Macron surprised friend and foe alike on Tuesday when he said part of his Covid strategy was to “piss off” the unvaccinated with increasing restrictions to convince them to get a jab. The admission provoked predictably outraged reactions from political opponents, but some analysts say the statement was a calculated ploy to boost his image as a champion of the silent centrist majority standing against political extremes.

As the world battles the Omicron surge and nations including France race to get as many citizens vaccinated as possible, Macron expressed his strategy in vulgar terms: “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated – and that’s what we’re going to do, right until the end,” he told Le Parisien.

Cue the outrage from Macron’s political opponents. “A president shouldn’t say that,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party (Rassemblement National, formerly the National Front) and a presidential contender. Macron’s words show him to be “unfit for office”, she added. “Appalling” was the verdict of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise), in a Twitter post. “Blatant cruelty,” far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour, also a presidential hopeful, tweeted.

‘Political theatre’

In reaction to Macron’s remarks, parliament suspended debate for the second night running on plans to introduce tighter restrictions for France’s health pass. French residents currently need a QR code providing proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test to enter cultural and leisure venues or to travel on long-distance trains. Macron’s bill would make full vaccination (three jabs) the only way to qualify for a pass from January 15.

But suspending debates on the bill is just “political theatre”, given the huge parliamentary majority Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (La République En Marche) party enjoys, said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester. The suspension will “probably delay it for a day or two – no more”, he said.

Some observers say Macron’s profanity was also a bit of theatre, coming less than four months ahead of April’s presidential vote. The image of a responsible, centrist leader using health pass restrictions to guide France through the Covid maelstrom is a key part of his electoral strategy.

Polls show Macron’s policies to make life harder for the unvaccinated are popular: Two-thirds of the French population support transforming the health pass into a vaccine pass, according to an Odaxa survey in late December. A similar majority consistently supported the health pass – which cut through substantial anti-vax sentiment to turbocharge France’s vaccination rate to 77 percent, one of the highest in the Western world ahead of the US, the UK and Germany.

The long series of protests against the health pass in summer 2020 attracted support from just a quarter of the population, after conspiracist rhetoric overshadowed more mainstream opposition to the measure based on civil liberty arguments.

Hence, Macron’s statement about “pissing off” the unvaccinated “speaks to the overwhelming majority of the French population who have been fully vaccinated – not to the people who are holding out over getting a jab, who often vote for political extremes”, Smith said.

“He understands that people who have voluntarily held out against vaccination are frowned upon by people who’ve had their jabs, got their health passes, and just want to see the pandemic over.”

Smith went on to say the president was probably aiming his comments at those already likely to support him, not trying to win converts.

“What Macron said was very much aimed at people who are minded to support him in the presidential elections,” he said. “Someone doesn’t go from supporting Mélenchon on the far left or Le Pen or Éric Zemmour on the far right to suddenly thinking they’ll cash in their vote with Macron; that transfer doesn’t really happen.”

Holding fast on the right, traditional conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains is by far the most formidable threat to Macron’s re-election. She boasts her own track record in dealing with Covid as head of the Paris region – and is challenging Macron on the burgeoning right-of-centre ground of French politics, which has moved further to the right since he took office in 2017.

>> Conservative Pécresse looks to establish herself as the ‘only threat’ to Macron

Pécresse’s main line of attack against Macron is that he is a “pale imitation” of a centre-right leader – who promised bold policies and failed to deliver – while she is the authentic article.

This illuminates Macron’s change of tack from his long interview with TF1 in the Élysée Palace last month, in which he admitted that some haughty remarks early in his presidency were “unacceptable” and that “you can get things done without upsetting people”.

Macron’s latest statement “seems like it’s coming from a candidate, not a president”, Smith said.

“He campaigned last time round as a disrupter, someone new who was going to get things done differently. It’s tough to be that kind of figure – to be new – when you’re sitting in the chair. So what Macron was doing was to shine a light on how he still has a transformative impulse, promising a return to normal in the language of disruption. It was a media statement, even more than a political statement.”

Pécresse was among those who suggested Macron’s vulgar word choice was improper for an occupant of the Élysée Palace – telling broadcaster CNews that “it’s not up to the president of the republic to pick out good and bad French people”, adding that France needs a government that “unites people and calms things down”.

But unlike Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon, Pécresse broadly agrees with Macron’s Covid policies, including the vaccine pass. This is not the issue on which she can win over his voters by offering a positive new direction, Smith said.

“Pécresse’s biggest task at the moment is making herself look very different from Macron, and if her different proposition is saying she is a bit more polite than him, that puts her in a tricky position. That type of criticism is not the most effective; it doesn’t really cut through to say, ‘Macron shouldn’t have said that’. If anything, it makes the other candidate look less effective.”

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