French President Emmanuel Macron burst into the presidential race with an explosive remark about the country's minority of unvaccinated people — in an apparent effort to win support from mainstream voters but at the risk of widening divisions over the issue.
Macron used a vulgarity to describe his strategy for pressuring vaccine refusers to get coronavirus jabs. In an interview published by Le Parisien newspaper late Tuesday, he used a word meaning to rile or to bug. His salty language dominated news broadcasts on Wednesday.
"The unvaccinated, I really want to bug them. And so we will continue doing so, to the end. That's the strategy," he said in the interview at the presidential Elysee Palace with a panel of its readers.
The 44-year-old outspoken, centrist president also expressed his desire to run for reelection in April's presidential vote. Yet he said he is still waiting to formally declare his candidacy because he wants to focus on the pandemic first.
Macron's comments come as lawmakers are heatedly debating new measures that would allow only the vaccinated to enjoy leisure activities such as eating out. More than 91% of adults in France are fully vaccinated.
Macron's goal is "to draw all the attention" and "make his contenders disappear, on the Trump model," political communications expert Philippe Moreau Chevrolet tweeted.
It is also a way to point the finger at people who haven't been vaccinated as being responsible for the situation, instead of being himself held accountable for the record numbers of infections, Moreau Chevrolet said.
Journalist Frédéric Says, a close observer of French politics, said on France Culture radio that it seems likely that Macron wants to capitalize on the exasperation expressed by many French voters. Macron was answering the question of a woman expressing indignation at planned surgeries of vaccinated people being canceled while unvaccinated patients are occupying most of the beds in intensive care units.
Commentators noted the remark appears to be even more surprising only three weeks after Macron expressed regrets about having hurt people's feelings with some comments.
"There are words that can hurt, and I think that's never right. … Respect is part of political life," he said on national television.
During his term, Macron upset many people when he told a jobless man that he just had to "cross the street" to find work. Or when he told retirees with small pensions to stop complaining. And when he suggested some French workers are lazy.
In recent months, France has seen weekly street protests against virus-related restrictions and vaccine requirements.
Macron's supporters suggested the president simply expressed out loud what some vaccinated people think about the unvaccinated, in a country with bitter divisions over the issue.
"Let's talk frankly. Who bugs the life of who today? Who ruins the life of our health workers who have been mobilized for two years … in our ICUs to save patients who today are mainly not vaccinated? It is those who are opposed to the vaccine," government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.
"To say things clearly … the words of the president of the republic seem to me well below the anger of a very large majority of French people" against unvaccinated people, he said.
Lawmakers in parliament are debating this week the government's planned new vaccine pass.
The measure will exclude unvaccinated individuals from places such as restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums and sports arenas. The pass will also be required on inter-regional trains and buses, and on domestic flights.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who opposed the vaccine pass proposal, said the president wants "to wage war against a portion of the French."
Another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, accused Macron of cruelty. On the far left, presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon asked: "Is the president in control of what he says?"
France reported a record-smashing 271,686 daily virus cases Tuesday as omicron infections race across the country, burdening hospital staff and threatening to disrupt transportation, schools and other services.
Macron's government is straining to avoid a new economically damaging lockdown that could hurt his reelection prospects. Ministers are instead trying to rush the vaccine pass bill through parliament in hopes that it will be enough to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
More than 20,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in France, a number that has been rising steadily for weeks but not as sharply as the country's infection rates.
COVID-19 patients fill more than 72% of France's ICU beds, and its once-renowned health care system is again showing signs of strain.