The new year has not started well for Emmanuel Macron. It began badly when some bright spark in the Elysée thought it would be a good idea to mark France’s six-month presidency of the European Union by unfurling the bloc’s blue and gold flag under the Arc de Triomphe.
Millions of French were not amused at what they regarded as a sacrilegious gesture. Macron’s two main rivals on the right, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally and Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans, accused the president of dishonouring the memory of the country’s military. By Sunday, the EU flag had made a tactical withdrawal, to the delight of Le Pen, who crowed:
‘The government has been forced to remove the EU flag from the Arc de Triomphe, a beautiful patriotic victory at the start of 2022.’
Macron’s week got worse on Monday when, contrary to expectations, the French parliament refused to give their assent to his vaccine pass bill. The new legislation, which Macron had hoped to have as law by 15 January, would remove the option of people entering bars, restaurants, cinemas and other public venues by showing a recent negative test; in other words take a jab or be shut out from society.
Le Pen’s National Rally and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing France Unbowed had been particularly opposed to the bill and the former was again gloating on Monday when the debate was suspended. It was, tweeted Le Pen, ‘a victory for democracy’.
Prime minister Jean Castex called the suspension of the debate ‘irresponsible’ but that perhaps was a more apt description of the remarks made by Macron to a French newspaper that were published last night. In an interview with Le Parisien, the president explained why he wanted the vaccine pass bill implemented: ‘I’m not trying to make life difficult for the French,’ he said. ‘But the anti-vaxxers, I really want to piss them off. And we will continue to do this – to the end.’
This would be achieved by making their lives a misery. ‘I won’t send [unvaccinated people] to prison,’ said Macron. ‘So we need to tell them, from 15 January, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. 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’s comments – which came on the day France recorded a record 271,686 new Covid cases – caused uproar in the French parliament and led to the suspension of the renewed debate about the vaccine pass bill. ‘It is clear, the vaccination pass is a collective punishment against individual freedom,’ said Mélenchon, while Le Pen tweeted that the president’s words demonstrated that he ‘is unworthy of his office’.
The Republicans were also outraged. Bruno Retailleau, the party’s Senate leader, declared that:
‘No health emergency justifies such words…Macron says he has learned to love the French, but it seems he especially likes to despise them’.
As Retailleau implied, it is not the first time that Macron has exhibited an animus towards his people. Since taking office he has at various times described a section of French society as ‘slackers’, ‘stubborn Gauls’, and, most notoriously, ‘people who are nothing’. In a television interview last month, Macron admitted he had on occasion erred in his attitude towards his people, a fault he attributed to ‘not being familiar with our compatriots’.
Macron clearly hasn’t learned the error of his ways, and his latest crass remarks will reinforce the impression that this is a callow president who doesn’t understand the people he governs. All his belligerent rhetoric will achieve is to further alienate the unvaccinated and alarm many of the 90 per cent of the vaccinated who share Le Pen’s sentiment that these are not the comments of a man fit to be their leader.
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