The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Macron is right: It’s time to make life a living hell for anti-vaxxers

French President Emmanuel Macron in Tende, France, on Jan. 10. (Daniel Cole/AFP)
Placeholder while article actions load

French President Emmanuel Macron certainly has a way with words. His statements can often be cutting, withering and sometimes even offensive (the man once told a young jobseeker to just walk across the street and get a job). But, sometimes, the ex-investment banker has a point; sometimes, he speaks the truth.

In an interview with France’s Le Parisien newspaper, Macron shared his thoughts about France’s unvaccinated population. He did not mince his words. “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” Macron said. “And so, we’re going to continue doing so until the end. That’s the strategy.”

The English translation hardly does the comment justice. In French, the verb he used is “emmerder,” which means, quite literally, to cover in excrement. The ire is difficult to translate, but in French it is crystal clear — clear enough to have launched an entire polemic after the interview published last Tuesday.

This article was featured in the Opinions A.M. newsletter. Sign up here for a digest of opinions in your inbox six days a week.

On the heels of a looming presidential election in late April, Macron’s opponents wasted no time in clutching their pearls over the incumbent president’s alleged insult to the good people of France.

Valérie Pécresse, who is challenging Macron for the Élysée Palace from France’s Les Républicains conservative party, said that her opponent was unnecessarily demonizing some citizens. “It’s not up to the president of the Republic to pick out the good and bad French people,” she said.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right contender from the Rassemblement National party, said much the same, saying that a president “shouldn’t say that” and that Macron was “unworthy of his office.”

Ditto another far right contender, Éric Zemmour, and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “Cowardly with the strong, cruel with the weak,” Zemmour said of Macron. “Appalling,” said Mélenchon. “Does the president know what he says?”

Macron does seem to know what he says, but more than that, the president happens to be totally right. There is no justifiable excuse for refusing vaccination, which is the only way the pandemic will ever come close to ending. Macron has set a fine example for other world leaders to follow in refusing to kowtow before ignorance or honor selfishness.

Here’s the other thing: Despite the hand-wringing over an apparently unpresidential choice of words, the comment already seems to have worked. By last Thursday, the first full day after Macron’s comment was made, France’s Health Ministry announced that the number of first vaccinations against the coronavirus had tripled to 66,000 — the country’s highest figure since Oct. 1.

In the very beginning, Europe’s vaccine campaign last spring, and France’s in particular, left much to be desired: It was initially slow, convoluted and bureaucratic. I myself wasted no time in criticizing it. But in the long haul, there is no way to ignore the steady progression of the French campaign. Seventy-seven percent of French people have received at least two doses, or 90 percent of those 12 years old and over.

The secret of the French campaign’s success is that Macron’s strategy has long been to “emmerder” those who refuse vaccines, instituting QR codes to get into restaurants, cafes, movie theaters and other public places — although you could still get a valid health pass with a negative test or a recovery certificate.

But those rules are now even stricter: The French parliament recently passed Macron’s vaccine pass bill, which means that accessing public life will now require a vaccine. The bill still needs approval from the French Senate, but it is likely to pass.

If Macron’s approach has shown anything, it is the sad and apparent truth that the only way to compel citizens to act for the greater good is not to appeal to some higher sense of civic duty but to tell them there will be no restaurant meals if they don’t get their shots.

Funny how even the loudest vaccine skeptics start to reconsider their convictions when they realize there won’t be able to drink wine on cafe terraces. It’s almost as though their convictions are not so much convictions and actually just, well, what Macron said.