In 1815 a French general, Pierre Cambronne, replied to a British general’s suggestion that he should surrender on the battlefield of Waterloo with the word “merde” (“shit”).
Since then rude or slang words have occasionally — but only occasionally — disfigured, or enlivened, the starched world of “officalspeak” in France.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is frequently mocked for his dense, academic, top-down language, used a mildly rude word in a newspaper interview the other day — causing opposition politicians to shriek and swoon with confected outrage.
Macron’s “gros mot” was a variation on “merde,” the Waterloo word that is still known in polite French as the “mot de Cambronne.” The president said he was pursuing a deliberate policy of “emmerdement” — literally of “pissing off” or, more politely, “bugging” the 8 percent of the French who are unvaccinated in order to harass them into protecting themselves, and others, against COVID-19.
He actually used the word three times in a long reply during a readers’ question and answer session for the newspaper Le Parisien. A nurse asked how he was going to reduce the numbers of the unvaccinated, who were occupying 85 percent of the beds in her acute care unit.
“By … pissing them off even more,” Macron said. “I’m generally opposed to the French being pissed off. I complain all the time about administrative blockages. But when it comes to the nonvaccinated, I’m very keen to piss them off. So we’re going to carry on doing it to the end. That’s our strategy.”
The repetition of the word suggested that it was no lapse or accident. Politicians and officials close to Macron have since said that it was a deliberate choice by the president to use more striking and popular language. He wanted to drive home the point but also to make himself appear more down-to-earth and less (to use Macron’s own much-mocked word from early in his presidency ) “Jupiterian.”
I suspect that the word was also a trap set for the opposition. If so, it worked a treat. Opponents accused Macron of “Trumpising” the language of French politics. They said that he was acting like a “little dictator.”
For many opposition politicians, especially from the center-right, the second accusation is incoherent. They support, in theory, Macron’s decision to turn the existing “health pass” (restricting access to fun and travel) into a full-blown “vaccine pass” — making bars, restaurants, theaters, cinemas and travel off-limits to the unvaccinated.
The other accusation – that Macron has debased or Trumpized the language appropriate for a head of state — is also far-fetched. It may be difficult to imagine Queen Elizabeth using such a word but Macron is not the first French president to do so.
The late Jacques Chirac, a father figure to many of the current center-right exponents of faux outrage, famously said while he was president: “Les emmerdes, ça vole toujours en escadrille” (“shit flies in squadrons”).
Georges Pompidou, when he was Charles de Gaulle’s prime minister in 1966, called on his government to cut red tape by saying: “Arretez donc d’emmerder les Français” (“let’s stop pissing off the French”).
Nicolas Sarkozy, another father figure of the center-right, was recorded grossly insulting a member of the public who refused to shake his hand when he was president in February 2008. Sarkozy said: “Casse-toi, pauv’ con!” or in a somewhat too polite translation, “Get lost, you hopeless cretin.”
Even Charles de Gaulle himself shocked (and delighted) the nation in a television interview between two rounds of the presidential election of 1965. De Gaulle did not actually swear but the president, previously known for his august and austere diction, launched into a long metaphor on the state of the nation using the language of the last man at the Bar du Commerce.
The country was like a housewife, he said. She wanted progress (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, even cars) but not “a shambles” in which her husband got “boozed up every night.”
De Gaulle’s verbal descent from Olympus was credited as an important factor in helping him to defeat the Socialist candidate François Mitterrand in the presidential run-off a few days later.
Will Macron’s rude word also be a vote-winner this April? Or will he “piss off” more people than he intended to?
I suspect that neither the word nor the strategy of harassing the unvaccinated will do him much harm. They will delight the many millions of vaccinated French people who themselves feel “emmerdés” by the lies and obfuscations of the unvaxxed.
Macron was taking a risk all the same. His risqué language was the language of someone who was campaigning and not just governing. Macron’s people have admitted as much by saying that his choice of less high-flown diction was deliberate.
Macron has yet to formally enter the race for the April election. He told readers of Le Parisien on Tuesday that he was “eager” to run again but wanted the health crisis to ease before he declared.
He has been entertaining that confusion for more than a month now. He will emmerder the French if that continues for much longer.