Presidential Profanities

Happy New Year.

President Macron made headlines around the world this week. In an interview with Le Parisien on Tuesday, he declared, ‘We put pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting their access to social activities as much as possible. It is a very small minority that is resistant. I’m not for pissing off the French … but the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off (j’ai très envie de les emmerder). And so, we will continue to do so, until the end. From January 15, you will no longer be able to go to a restaurant, you will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre, to the movies … This is the strategy.’

It’s likely that he knew exactly what he was doing when he made these remarks, intending them to be a trap for his opponents – one that they have fallen into. His words provoked (largely simulated) outrage on both the right and left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the radical left France Insoumise party, called Macron’s language ‘appalling’, adding, ‘It’s clear the vaccine pass is a collective punishment against individual liberties.’ Far-right leader and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen tweeted that a president ‘shouldn’t say that’ and that Macron was ‘unworthy of his office’. Bruno Retailleau, head of the right-wing Republicans in the Senate declared, ‘Emmanuel Macron says he has learnt to love the French, but it seems he especially likes to despise them.’

Such remarks, however, are unlikely to reflect the mood of the public at large. Over 92 per cent of eligible French are now first-vaccinated, and 90.5 per cent are double-jabbed. The remaining 10 per cent are well-described by The Local’s John Lichfield: ‘an eclectic bunch of anti-vax obsessives or crazies, stubborn libertarians and a large group of over-80s who rarely leave home’. Few are likely to be potential Macron voters.

Macron’s supporters had already accused his opponents of playing politics with the health crisis when they used a parliamentary manoeuvre to cut short an all-night debate on the new vaccine pass on Monday evening. Now they can accuse the opposition of using fake indignation to win the votes of a minority of anti-vaxxers.

Government spokesperson Gabriel Attal has backed the president: ‘Who is wasting the lives of caregivers, traders … the elderly who live in loneliness and fear of the epidemic? Who is pissing off who today? … It’s those who refuse the vaccine.’ Prime Minister Jean Castex has said that people who got the jab are ‘exasperated’ with the unvaccinated.

Yes, they say, the president’s language was a little crude, But it reflects an anger that many people share. If he speaks formally, he is accused of being out of touch. If he speaks colloquially, he is accused of being vulgar. He at least is doing something. The opposition is reduced to playing politics.

(Following Postcards from Poitiers guidelines, I should warn you that the rest of this piece contains strong language and an image that readers might find offensive.)

One interesting aspect of this whole affair is exactly how ‘unpresidential’ M. Macron’s remarks actually were.

Jonathan Miller (not the dead one) in The Spectator was very sniffy: ‘How can he imagine this is consistent with the dignity of his office? Can anyone imagine General de Gaulle speaking like this?’

In fact, de Gaulle was no stranger to the odd obscenity himself, most noticeably when he used the word chienlit to describe the 1968 student uprisings. It translates as ‘shitting in your own bed’. Since then, French presidents have not hesitated to speak plainly when they felt like it.

It was to de Gaulle’s successor George Pompidou that M. Macron was clearly referring in his remarks on Tuesday. On being brought a large pile of decrees to sign by a government official, an exasperated Pompidou exclaimed, Mais arrêtez donc d’emmerder les Français! … Il y a trop de lois, trop de textes, trop de règlements dans ce pays! (‘But stop pissing off the French! There are too many laws, too many legal texts, too many regulations in this country!’).

Jacques Chirac was no slouch at coining a colourful phrase. Before becoming president, he served as prime minister, and in 1988, after a bruising encounter with Margaret Thatcher at a European Summit in Brussels, he asked reporters, Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veut en plus cette ménagère? Mes couilles sur un plateau? (‘What more does this housewife want? My balls on a plate?’).

Nicolas Sarkozy, who followed Chirac, is perhaps the most prolific French head of state when it comes to outrageous language. He said of his own party that they were tous des cons (all idiots) and described Marine Le Pen as une hommasse (butch). In 2008, while he was shaking hands with people at an agricultural show, a man shouted, Ah non, touche-moi pas! Tu me salis! (‘No, don’t touch me! You disgust me!’), to which the president replied, Eh ben, casse-toi alors, pauv’ con! (‘Well fuck off then, asshole!’).

Not exactly the language of Voltaire, is it?

***

‘Trust me, I’m a Prime Minister’

In the UK, the current prime minister has been known to utter the odd expletive. Most noticeably, when asked about supply chain concerns in the run-up to Brexit, he replied, ‘Fuck business!’ By now, of course, it is clear that his attitude towards business is equally his attitude to the truth and to anyone who disagrees with him.

When a prime minster leaves office, their portrait is hung in 10 Downing Street, either a painting or, in recent years, a photograph. I humbly suggest that a more appropriate tribute to the current incumbent would be this eloquent pen picture provided by Rory Stewart, former Tory MP and Secretary of State for International Development:

‘Johnson is after all the most accomplished liar in public life – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister. Some of this may have been a natural talent – but a lifetime of practice and study has allowed him to uncover new possibilities which go well beyond all the classifications of dishonesty attempted by classical theorists like St Augustine. He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie – which may inadvertently be true.’

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

‘TV dinners’ were so-called because the compartments resembled the screen and knobs on an old-style round-cornered TV.

The dinosaur noises in the film Jurassic Park were made using recordings of tortoises having sex.

In 2017, the Vatican banned the use of gluten-free bread for Holy Communion.

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