Many people love the French language for its flowing sonorous qualities or its meticulous adherence to grammatical rules. Once you’ve studied French a bit, you’re also likely to appreciate the language’s elaborate lexicon of profanity. Last week, President Macron stepped outside of the usual guardrails of European political decorum and threatened to make the lives of the unvaccinated a living hell. Well, that’s not exactly what he said. His actual words are subject to interpretation. There’s not a direct English translation.
The threat, however, provoked a petit tollé (small uproar) and inspired a host of humorous political cartoons and biting editorials. Was Macron neglecting his responsibilities to all French citizens or was he perhaps cynically trying to dominate the headlines in an election year? I wanted to share more of this story, but to give you a better understanding of Macron’s scandalous stance, I start with a short lesson on the word merde and its variants, which are more numerous than those of the Coronavirus.
A Few Members of the Merde Family
Even people who know little to no French, probably know the word merde which literally and figuratively means shit. In English, we use simple forms of the word shit (with minor variations) as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The French do as well, except that their family of linguistic mutations for merde is much richer. The table below illustrates French curse-word sophistication.
|la démerde||the act of getting oneself out of deep shit|
|un petit merdeux, une petite merdeuse||a mischievous little shit|
|le merdier||a shitty situation|
|un emmerdeur, une emmerdeuse||someone who is a pain in the ass|
|un emmerdement||a major hassle|
|se démerder||to manage, cope with, or deal with a problem|
These are just a few examples, the meanings of which can vary widely depending on context or the vehemence with which someone evokes them. This brings me to the main subject of this post and the verb, emmerder.
Wordreference, an excellent online dictionary and forum for those needing help with translation, has several definitions for emmerder. I’ve screenshotted the principal translations below to give you an idea of the level of insult you might perceive when you hear a French person using this word.
Merde Hits the Fan
When President Macron uttered the questionable invective, he was being interviewed by Le Parisien, a daily newspaper that covers national, international, and local news for the Paris metropolitan area. When the conversation turned to what Macron planned to do about the 10% of French people over the age of 12 who are not yet vaccinated, Macron’s words became heated:
|« Moi, je ne suis pas pour emmerder les Français. Je peste toute la journée contre l’administration quand elle les bloque. Eh bien là, les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. Et donc on va continuer de le faire, jusqu’au bout. C’est ça, la stratégie. »||“I’m not in favor of making life hell for French citizens. I bust my butt all day long against the administration when it gets in their way. But, the unvaccinated, I’d really like to piss them off. And so, we’re going to continue to do it, right up to the end. That’s the strategy.”|
|« Nous mettons une pression sur les non-vaccinés en limitant pour eux, autant que possible, l’accès aux activités de la vie sociale, explique le chef de l’Etat. Je ne vais pas les mettre en prison, je ne vais pas les vacciner de force. Et donc, il faut leur dire : à partir du 15 janvier, vous ne pourrez plus aller au restau, vous ne pourrez plus prendre un canon, vous ne pourrez plus aller boire un café, vous ne pourrez plus aller au théâtre, vous ne pourrez plus aller au ciné… »||“We’re putting pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting them, as much as possible, to access to social activities. I’m not going to put them in prison, I’m not going to force vaccinations upon them. Therefore, it must be said : starting on January 15, you won’t be able to go to a restaurant, you won’t be able to order a drink, you won’t be able to go drink a coffee in a café, you won’t be able to go to the theater, you won’t be able to go to the movies…”|
|« La quasi-totalité des gens, plus de 90 %, ont adhéré » à la vaccination et « c’est une toute petite minorité qui est réfractaire … l’immense faute morale des antivax » est de « saper ce qu’est la solidité d’une nation ». « Quand ma liberté vient menacer celle des autres, je deviens un irresponsable. Un irresponsable n’est plus un citoyen. »||“Nearly everyone, more than 90%, has been vaccinated and a tiny minority still resists…the immense moral fault of the anti-vaxers is undermining a nation’s solidarity. When my freedom threatens that of others, I become a reckless slacker. A reckless slacker is no longer a citizen.”|
Making Life Difficult
In essence, Macron is making life difficult for the small percentage of people that, so far, have refused to get vaccinated. There are already mask mandates throughout France, requiring citizens to wear masks in all public indoor settings, including schools. Starting tomorrow, Macron’s emmerding will obligate French citizens to present a health pass, affirming that they’ve been vaccinated before they can enter any kind of recreational or leisure facility.
In justifying his position, Macron went on to explain that he could not force people to get vaccinated because such a mandate would be impossible to administer. He wasn’t going to throw people in prison. Nor would he direct hospitals to deprioritize unvaccinated patients when resources were scarce, “because a caregiver looks at a sick person and doesn’t see where he’s from or what he is”. The detached nature of this statement leaves both critics and supporters to wonder whether Macron, left to his own devices, would treat the unvaccinated with as much consideration.
A Presidential Election Year
In April, the French people will head to the polls to vote for president. President Macron, having only served a single 5-year term, is running for re-election. In 2016, Macron was a fresh new face, with a new political party behind him, En Marche. His popularity has waxed and waned throughout his mandate. However, with so many political parties and candidates in France, Macron is the current frontrunner.
As one might expect, Macron’s opponents, from all sides of the political spectrum, are decrying his choice of words. Their accusations range from charging the French president with crass insensitivity, to utter disrespect for the French people, to cynical manipulation of the 24-hour news cycle. Whether Macron’s statement was masterfully calculated to make headlines is unknown, but it has certainly dominated French media outlets.
A New Scapegoat
Harassing a small segment of the population in order to get everyone’s attention, seems like a worthwhile gamble. It’s evident that the French people are largely pro-vaccine and everyone is tired of the pandemic. Many of the initial kinks in the health pass system have been worked out, so the inconvenience for French citizens is no longer a significant barrier.
French elections are held in two rounds. The first round is likely to contain roughly one dozen candidates. The two who receive the most votes will face off in round two, held a week later. History, polling, and the political pundits predict that this year’s second round will feature Macron against a candidate from the far right. No matter his opponent, it seems clear that no candidate can afford to take an anti-vaccination stand.
Famous Last Words
Despite the mask mandates and existing health pass requirements, France has seen the same spike in COVID cases as other countries. As in the United States, French hospitals are under tremendous strain with disproportionately high numbers of unvaccinated people occupying beds. Hence, a political strategy that exploits people’s growing frustration with a pandemic that has no end in sight, might well reap success. Whether Macron’s bravado eventually lands him in the halls of great men remains to be seen.