French President Emmanuel Macron’s salvo against the unvaccinated fits a pattern for a leader whose unusual vocabulary and unguarded comments impress his supporters but appall critics.
Speaking to the Parisien newspaper on January 4, the 44-year-old centrist kicked up a political firestorm by saying that he wanted to “emmerder” the unvaccinated, using French slang that might literally translate as “cover in shit”.
As his domestic opponents seized on the phrase as uncouth and provocative, foreign journalists grappled with how to translate it, with most English-speaking publications eventually opting for “piss off”.
The verb “emmerder” is commonly used in France to mean annoy or hassle, a vulgar but not shocking turn of phrase – except perhaps in the mouth of the head of the state.
“There is the issue of what people think themselves and then what they expect from the president,” Bruno Jeanbart, a political commentator at the OpinionWay polling group in France.
“Such a brutal expression, given that you could say the same thing in a less provocative way, could upset people who have a certain idea of how the president should behave,” he added.
Jeanbart said it was unclear to him whether it was a spontaneous outburst – for which Macron has previous form – or whether it was a deliberate attempt to attract attention and provoke his opponents.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the words as simply reflecting what most French people thought.
“Let’s be honest: who is pissing off who here?” he said. “I think the president’s words fell well short of the anger the vast majority of French people feel, faced with this choice to oppose vaccination.”
Around 90 per cent of eligible French people are vaccinated, but Attal said the unjabbed were “ruining the lives” of medical personnel, business owners, as well as elderly people “forced to live alone and in fear”.
The verb “emmerder” has a particular resonance in French political life and is commonly associated with former president Georges Pompidou.
Pompidou is said to have uttered the words “Let’s stop pissing off the French people” when handed a bundle of new regulations to approve while he was serving as prime minister in 1966.
“We have always had a policy of placing restrictions on the unvaccinated. That’s the essence, using a phrase from Georges Pompidou, of what Emmanuel Macron is saying,” senior ruling party figure Christophe Castaner wrote on Twitter.
The quote from Pompidou has never been confirmed, however, and was made in private.
Macron, a keen student of history and one-time assistant to a philosopher, has previously defended his use of an often high-brow vocabulary and literary references.
His utterance in the past of the words “carabistouilles” (meaning “idiotic stories”) or “la poudre de perlimpinpin” (“fake medicine”) has had observers scrambling for dictionaries.
Off-the-cuff remarks seen as arrogant and patronising, such as when he told an unemployed man to “cross the road” to find a job in 2018, have since been acknowledged by him as hurtful.
Some analysts warned that by making his opposition to anti-vaxxers so frontal and explicit, Macron risked stirring up even more pushback against vaccinations, and even violence.
In the same interview with the Parisien, Macron himself warned about the dangers of rhetorical excess and the thirst for public clashes on television shows.
“There’s a discipline for debating between citizens,” he said. “We need to fight against the surge in excesses, by putting more reason in our debates and less negative emotions.”