BERLIN — “I want to piss off [emmerder] the unvaccinated. So we’re going to continue to do so.”
These sentences, from a 4 January interview given to the newspaper Le Parisien by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, instantly inflamed France’s febrile political atmosphere.
Condemnations from Macron’s rivals for the 2022 presidential election were instant and near universal. It was “a stupefying admission”, according to the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon; “a political error”, in the eyes of the Green leader Yannick Jadot. “A president should not say this… Macron is not fit for his office,” the far-right leader Marine Le Pen said.
But within his own political camp support for Macron has been forthcoming. Christophe Castaner, head of the president’s party in parliament, defended Macron’s “political courage”. His former prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said that “a large majority” of people would agree with the president.
Macron’s comments – which echo a 1966 quote from the former president Georges Pompidou – represent an escalation in his longstanding strategy of targeting most Covid-19 restrictions against the unvaccinated, who now represent about 10 per cent of the eligible population. For months, the unvaccinated have had to present a recent negative test to enter a swathe of venues, such as restaurants and cinemas.
A planned law supported by the government, currently being debated in parliament, is to remove the option of a negative test, effectively banning everyone without a full course of vaccination from almost all areas of public life. The plan, as Macron inelegantly put it, is to inconvenience the millions of French people who have so far refused the vaccine until they cannot take it anymore and give in.
“We have to tell [the unvaccinated]… you will no longer be able to go to restaurants. 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,” Macron continued to Le Parisien.
Macron’s interview, then, does not represent a change in policy. It does, however, mark a drastic escalation in the president’s war of words on the unvaccinated minority, who are accused of taking up a majority of intensive care beds in hospitals, putting themselves and others at risk and threatening the return of further restrictions for all.
Few people who have not been vaccinated in the over six months since the jabs became widely available are likely to be convinced by his intervention. But the intention of his remarks is more about signalling to the vaccinated majority that he is on their side, rather than convincing refuseniks.
It is a less-noticed quote from the same interview that is possibly more concerning, however. “An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen,” Macron starkly told Le Parisien, referring to those who remain unvaccinated.
France has not, so far, chosen to mandate vaccination. The unvaccinated are breaking no laws by holding out against a set of incentives designed to coerce people into receiving the jab. Macron has not, so far, decided to make vaccination obligatory for all, as Austria is planning to do.
Refusing to be vaccinated may be irresponsible and selfish. But as long as the government continues to insist that individuals are ultimately responsible for the decision to get vaccinated – rather than being forced into it by law – it is logically inconsistent for Macron to claim that people exercising the freedom he is offering them is illegitimate. If he truly believes that to be a citizen is to be vaccinated, he should take the argument to its logical conclusion and support mandatory vaccination.