PARIS (Reuters) -The government on Wednesday defended President Emmanuel Macron's use of a coarse insult in a stepped-up campaign against France's unvaccinated, after the phrase drew condemnation from the opposition and mixed reactions from voters.
Parliament suspended debate on a COVID-19 bill as opposition lawmakers demanded explanations from Macron, who earlier said he wanted to "piss off" unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting jabbed.
"A president cannot say such things," Christian Jacob, chair of the conservative Les Republicans party, told parliament as it discussed a bill to make it mandatory for people to show proof of vaccination to enter many enclosed public spaces.
But government spokesman Gabriel Attal said it stood by Macron's comment to Le Parisien newspaper https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/frances-macron-rules-out-new-covid-19-curbs-ahead-wednesday-meeting-2022-01-04, published late on Tuesday.
"Who is pissing off who today?", Attal said, quoting health workers struggling to cope or businesses hurt by the pandemic. "It's those who refuse the vaccine."
With a presidential election due in April in which he is expected to run, Macron may have calculated that enough people are now vaccinated - and upset with remaining anti-vaxxers - for his comment to go down well with voters.
It resonated with some.
"He's right," said 89-year-old Paris pensioner Jean, who's had his COVID-19 booster and a flu shot too. "Those who are against the vaccine should understand the dangers, and they should get vaccinated."
But others agreed with lawmaker Jacob that Macron's use of the slang term "emmerder" - from "merde" (s***) - was unacceptable.
"That shows an aggressive side, it's a bad word, it's not very clever of him," said 25-year old sales representative Maya Belhassen.
"That's not a good comment from a president," added newspaper seller Pascal Delord.
TARGETING THE SCEPTICS
France has historically had more vaccine sceptics than many of its neighbours, and pandemic restrictions have triggered many street protests, but nearly 90% of those aged 12 have now been inoculated, one of the continent's highest COVID-19 vaccination rates.
In the Le Parisien interview, Macron, who has consistently called on everyone in France to get vaccinated, also called unvaccinated people irresponsible and - in another remark criticised by some voters and the opposition, that "irresponsible people are no longer citizens".
Macron did not say whether he would run for re-election but said he "would like to".
People have for several months had to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter venues such as cinemas and cafes and use trains. But with Delta and Omicron variant infections surging, the government decided to drop the test option in the new bill.
The opposition forced the suspension of the debate on the vaccine pass, shortly before 2 a.m (0100 GMT). It resumed during the afternoon.
"I'm in favour of the vaccine pass but I cannot back a text whose objective is to 'piss off' the French," Jacob told parliament before the suspension. "Is that your objective, yes or no? We cannot keep debating without having a clear answer on that."
(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten, Lea Guedj, Ingrid Melander; Editing by Timothy Heritage and John Stonestreet)