Tactless or Tactical? French President Macron Threatens Anti-Vaxers

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.

Un Communiqué
An Announcement from the President of France, of Europe, and of Groland “Have a Happy and Healthy New Year and Piss Off”, by Déligne

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 démerdethe act of getting oneself out of deep shit
un petit merdeux, une petite merdeusea mischievous little shit
le merdiera shitty situation
un emmerdeur, une emmerdeusesomeone who is a pain in the ass
un emmerdementa major hassle
emmerdanthighly annoying
se démerderto 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.

Definition of Emmerder
Macron’s Little Dictionary, “Emmerder:” “Action to encourage people to go get vaccinated for their own good”, by Chaunu

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.

Principal definitions for emmerder
Principal definitions for emmerder, Wordreference.com

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.”
Gang of Reckless Thugs
“Gang of Reckless Slackers!” by Sié

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.

Le Gorafi, Vaccination Pass
The French equivalent of The Onion ran the story, “Emmanuel Macron announces the health pass will be required to access all vaccination centers”, Le Gorafi

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.

Intensive Care from Macron
Macron and the unvaccinated in intensive care. “I’ll give you some intensive care!!!”, by Faro

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.

En Merde!
Macron launches his campaign with a new political party. “En Merde!”, by Ixène. (Macron’s party, launched in the last presidential election, is En Marche.)

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.

Don't forget
“Don’t forget that during a campaign, when you have nothing to say, you need to speak loudly.”, by Xavier Gorce

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.

Its His Fault!
Immigrant: “Whew, a break!” Citizen: “All of our problems are his fault!” by Thibaut Soulcié

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.

Famous Citations
Famous Citations, by Sié

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

20 Comments

  1. He is another petit napoleon but gladly this is 2022 !!

  2. Your post is so good, thanks so much!!

  3. This is classic Macron: his policies often are reasonably popular, but he sounds like a jerk when he explains them. The French people are used to presidents that are grandfatherly types that don’t accomplish a lot but seem like nice guys (Jacques Chirac being the prime example). Macron is much younger and has more of a “This is what’s going to happen, deal with it” attitude. It rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and his tenure has been really marked by protests, even by French standards. But I think in the end he’ll win re-election.

  4. Thank you for this analytical exploration of the variegated world of merde. It has often struck me that English-language profanity is largely based on sexual words (fuck you, what a fucking mess, etc) whereas in French, German, and I think many languages it’s mostly based on words that literally refer to excrement. It’s natural that profanity expresses disgust, but an association of sex with disgust strikes me as unhealthy.

    I can imagine that Macron’s tough measures have widespread support. I’m fed up with this pandemic too, and well aware that it’s the resistance to vaccines and other public-health measures which is a big part of why it continues. I don’t think such measures would work in the US, though, because too many people wouldn’t comply and enforcement would be impossible (in large areas of the country, local officials and police are among those who reject even the moderate disease-control measures we already have). Even in a very blue city like Portland, I regularly see people with no masks in grocery stores and the like, and the employees do nothing about it because management has told them not to (a store employee told me that), probably because anti-maskers are likely to be violent if confronted.

    So “intensive care” is réanimation? Do you need to be already dead to qualify for it?

    • Haha! I’m glad I could provide the analytical exploration. The French have plenty of curse words that revolve around sex as well. One of the most common is the word putain, which means prostitute. You mentioned learning the word connerie from an earlier post. There are probably as many variations of the root word con, which means cunt, as there are for merde. There are also several crude verbs for fuck that are used in much the same way as in the U.S.

      You’re right that Macron’s restrictions would never fly in the United States. Too many Americans have a very different set of priorities. Here’s a case in point, perhaps worthy of your weekly round-up: https://nypost.com/2022/01/15/disney-fans-line-up-for-seven-hours-to-buy-figment-popcorn-buckets/

      Haha! Happily, you don’t have to die before you receive intensive care.

      • I wonder if Vladimir Putain will lobby France to abolish that word? Canadian poutine is bad enough. And do the French snicker about the actor, Sean Connery?

        Seriously, that’s kind of sad. A sex worker is just as worthy of respect as an accountant (the line of work I’ve been in all my working life), but they are often the objects of demeaning language and word usage.

        If people will wait in line seven hours to buy a bucket shaped like a cartoon dragon, one can only hope they’ll be equally serious about voting, when the time comes.

        • Funny you should draw the connection to Putin. The French pronounce and spell the Russian leader’s name just like the Canadian gravy and fries, Poutine. Before I knew this, I once pronounced his name like the word putain, which is one of the most offensive curse words. As soon as I said it, I realized I’d made a big mistake.

          I agree that the French are treating sex workers (and female anatomy) unjustly.

          I’m not sure I want people who are devoted to a sizable hunk of plastic, of questionable utility, that is destined for the landfill, to cast their votes.

          • I generally just call him Tin-of-Pu.

            I’d rather have the dragon bucket brigade voting than all these people who take horse de-wormer and drink their own urine.

          • Ha! Nice nickname.

            I guess you’re right that the Figment devotees are a step up. But, I’m not sure they meet the standard that Thomas Jefferson was thinking of when he said, “I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.”

  5. That was enlightening!

    • Attitudes are often quite different than in the United States. I think the European countries are much more of the mindset that “we’re in this together” and that citizens have certain obligations to their fellow citizens.

      Yet, there is always room for satire. In general, I think the French are much more tolerant of an extremely critical press. I was very sad when the NY Times decided to drop all of their editorial cartoons a few years ago.

  6. Thanks for the post and the cartoons. Little Macron has stepped outside his function and role again. I sincerely hope he is ousted in May. C’est un petit maquereau.
    And I love Xavier Gorce. His penguins are unique.
    Merci chère amie…

    • Je t’en prie Brieuc. Macron certainly does seem to be pushing the boundaries with much zeal. Who do you think has a good chance of replacing him?

      Gorce’s penguins are precious, here getting straight to the heart of the matter. 🙂

      • Gorce is very good. He was kicked out of Le Monde I think. Not politically correct…
        Macron might even be reelected. (OMG)
        Pécresse would be good, I think. I know someone on her team. They’re straight hands-on people.
        But… Le Pen, Pecresse, Zemmour all hover around 15%. Too close. At this stage any one of them could qualify for the second tour… Sigh.

        • I’m not familiar with Pecresse. Thanks for mentioning her. I’ll have to check her out.

          Political cartoonists seem to be getting hammered everywhere. I was really upset when the NYTimes dropped all editorial cartoons, including those by the brilliant Patrick Chappatte.

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