PARIS — Faced with a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant, President Emmanuel Macron of France said Wednesday that he wanted to “piss off” millions of his citizens who refuse to get vaccinated by squeezing them out of the country’s public spaces.
By shocking the nation with a vulgarity three months before presidential elections, Mr. Macron was relaying not only a public health message, but also a political one. He appeared to be calculating that tapping into the growing public anger against the unvaccinated held more potential electoral rewards than the risk of angering an anti-vaccination minority whose support he has little hope of ever getting.
Using his harshest language yet to urge the recalcitrant to get their shots, Mr. Macron said he would not “throw them in prison” or “vaccinate them by force.” But he made it clear he meant to make their lives harder.
In doing so, Mr. Macron, an inveterate political gambler who became the nation’s youngest leader ever five years ago, effectively kicked off his campaign for re-election Wednesday, drawing clear lines between his supporters and opponents. He also moved the focus of debate away from themes like immigration and Islam that have dominated the political race so far and that are advantageous to his strongest rivals, on the right and far right.
Mr. Macron was clearly seeking to tap into a rich political vein that his counterparts have been more cautious to exploit: anger among the majority of vaccinated people at a minority who refuse to get vaccinated and disproportionately occupy hospital beds. More than 77 percent of French people, and 92 percent of those 12 and older, have received at least two doses, according to the government.
“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” Mr. Macron said, using a French word that is more vulgar, explaining that a new, reinforced vaccine pass would make it impossible for the unvaccinated to go to restaurants and cafes, or the theater and cinemas. Their recalcitrance, as well as the surge in cases in France, is threatening to undermine his success so far in tackling the pandemic.
Elsewhere in Europe — faced with the same dilemma that the pandemic might not be reined in until the unvaccinated change their minds — leaders have been more hesitant to confront groups opposed to vaccinations that are often well-organized and vocal.
In Germany and Austria, the prospect of being coerced to get Covid shots has fueled angry and sometimes violent protests. Mandatory vaccination has long been dismissed as an option, not least by Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, but has increasingly gained support among politicians and virologists who say that other measures have failed to increase vaccination rates fast enough.
In Germany, Mr. Scholz stressed that he was “chancellor of the unvaccinated, too.” But Germany has excluded unvaccinated people from much of public life and is now debating whether to make vaccination mandatory. Mandatory vaccination is also scheduled to come into effect next month in Austria.
In Italy, the government is planning to introduce new measures to reduce the number of unvaccinated, possibly making shots mandatory for those over 60. But Italy’s large coalition government is struggling to find consensus on the measures, split between center-left groups that are in favor of mandatory vaccination and right-wing parties that are against it.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has not applied significant pressure on the unvaccinated, instead preferring to try to persuade Britons to get shots. That is partly because a powerful faction within Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party opposes coronavirus restrictions on libertarian grounds, or worries about their economic impact.
“Clearly, there are a number of leaders who don’t know anymore what to do,” said Adrien Abécassis, who has written about the politics of vaccination and is the head of research at Paris Peace Forum, an organization focusing on international governance.
By contrast, in France, Mr. Macron has steadfastly stuck to a policy of vaccinating as many people as possible, Mr. Abécassis said, “So there is strong legitimacy in having the highest possible vaccination rate. The strategy from the start has been to impose social sanctions of exclusion to those who don’t respect the social norm, which is to get vaccinated.”
Mr. Macron’s comments were published before France again registered a record number of infections on Wednesday evening — 332,000 cases — in the previous 24 hours, as the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeps across the country and the rest of Europe. The president was also reacting to moves this week by opposition lawmakers to delay the passage in Parliament of a bill that would make it possible to obtain France’s health pass only through vaccination and no longer with a negative test.
The rapid spread of Omicron has strained Mr. Macron’s successful pandemic…