The year 2022 is starting badly for the French government. While it wanted to use the outbreak of the omicron variant in France to impose the vaccine pass before mid-January, things are looking more complicated than expected.
The parliamentary debates on the subject in the National Assembly began on Monday, January 3rd, and gave rise to particularly violent and animated exchanges in the hemicycle debate chamber. In the afternoon, a succession of speeches were made to denounce the government’s project. The intervention of the leftist deputy Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise was particularly notable. Using offensive rhetoric, he condemned the vaccine pass as “100% ineffective” and accused the government of wanting to set up “a totalitarian society, an authoritarian society,” where everyone controls everyone. His final formula: “Freedom is the best protection” has been widely commented upon and welcomed on social networks by opponents of Emmanuel Macron’s health policy, regardless of their political stripe.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon also criticized the multiplication of absurd instructions from ministers, such as “coercive measures wrapped in chatter about who is allowed to eat popcorn or not at the cinema, or who should drink their coffee standing up or sitting down.” The multiple reversals by the minister of health or the minister of transport on these provisions in the days leading up to the debates had indeed given the impression of amateurism and a particularly excessive attention to detail.
The governmental Right were embarrassed, since the party Les Républicains chose to support the vaccination pass proposition. This did not prevent some of its representatives from vigorously opposing the text. Julien Aubert, the deputy of Vaucluse, accused the government of wanting to set up a Chinese-style system of social control and of unduly attacking children.
After nine hours of fierce debate, Health Minister Olivier Véran sought permission from deputies to continue the exchanges beyond midnight—the normal closing time for debate at the National Assembly. Normally a purely formal procedure, this time the health minister was opposed by a majority of deputies who voted by a show of hands to suspend the session. As a result, the timetable imposed by the government has been profoundly altered.
Julien Aubert welcomed this “slap in the face” inflicted on the government, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon welcomed the “correction” given to Olivier Véran. The president of the group Les Républicains in the Assembly, Damien Abad, blasted the incompetency operating as the head of state: “Once an amateur, always an amateur.” Marine Le Pen took the opportunity to remind the assembly that her party had been totally opposed to the vaccine pass and she described the vote of suspension as a “victory for democracy.”
Indeed, this refusal of the deputies to continue the debates beyond midnight comes after a long series of post-midnight votes by deputies to pass coercive measures throughout the health crisis, with questionable representation. Even the socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, although in favor of the vaccine pass, pointed a finger at dubious government legislation “which does not respect anyone,” calling for more time to be taken for political discussions around sensitive projects that entail the “deprivation of freedom.”
Voices opposing the midnight suspension also voiced their disgust. Government spokesman Gabriel Attal showed his displeasure to the press by calling those who voted for the suspension “irresponsible.” He wanted to keep the original schedule at all costs. Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne expressed moral indignation at a vote supported by deputies from various political platforms: “It is appalling to see deputies from Les Républicains allying themselves with deputies from La France Insoumise and the Rassemblement National to obstruct the adoption of a text that proposes measures to deal with the outbreak of the epidemic.”
Macron: “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated.”
Discussions resumed at the end of the day on January 4th, and were again violently disrupted by the publication of an interview with President Emmanuel Macron by the daily newspaper Le Parisien. In this article, he justifies his health policy by expressing himself in aggressively crass terms: “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated.”
Two elements of language caught the attention of the deputies and the media. The choice of “piss off”—shocking because of its inappropriateness to the presidential office—conjoined to his clear intent, “I really want to,” gives the impression that the president is acting out of pure personal whim and not because of a thoughtful and rational political strategy. Calling unvaccinated people irresponsible, he then added, “an irresponsible person is no longer a citizen.” He thus assumes in a totally unprecedented way a form of symbolic loss of citizenship—though he had refused the loss of nationality for terrorists a few months ago. Upon discovery of these remarks, the hashtag #MacronDestitution rose to the top of the French Twitter trends, with several tens of thousands of hits.
The discovery of the terms of the interview during the parliamentary debates caused a stir in the chamber, forcing a new suspension late in the evening of Tuesday. Prime Minister Jean Castex was summoned to appear before the deputies to explain and defend the president’s remarks, but he did not show up, provoking anger and stupefaction among the parliamentarians. The reactions of the leaders of the different political parties were absolutely unanimous in condemning the president’s remarks. Jean-Luc Mélenchon called them “appalling.” Fabien Roussel, the communist party candidate blasted an “unworthy and irresponsible statement by the president of the republic.” For Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron has just proved that he was “unworthy of the office,” and pointed to “a political fault, but also a moral fault” while Éric Zemmour accused him of “cruelty.” The same attitude of disapproval came from Les Républicains. Valérie Pécresse expressed her “indignation” at a president who chose to use “insults.”
The exact reasons for this violent remark by Emmanuel Macron are still difficult to analyze. Perhaps he chose to strengthen his pro-vaccination electoral base by showing unfailing determination on the subject. But the choice of method to achieve this result remains open to question, and the effect obtained could exceed his expectations—in the wrong direction.
After three days of long debates and violent rhetoric, the text was finally adopted by the National Assembly on the morning of Thursday, January 6th. The originally planned schedule is as yet compromised because it must also pass in the Senate, which will not meet to vote until next week.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).