A Calculated Vulgarity

5 January 2022

The jaws of French talking heads have been flapping wildly since Emmanuel Macron vented his sentiments about the unvaccinated: “J’ai très envie de les emmerder.” The English-speaking media have chosen by and large to translate this as “I’d really like to piss them off,” but this misses the somewhat more vulgar tone of the French, which is closer to “I’d really like to shit on them.” It’s the vulgarity that has so many in France clutching their pearls.

But the pearl-clutchers miss the strategic calculation behind Macron’s outburst—which was anything but a slip. A glance at the Third Wave of the IPSOS/Cevipof survey of French political sentiments shows that there was cold, calculating reason in Macron’s mischief. Scroll down to the section entitled “LE SENTIMENT VIS-À-VIS DES MOUVEMENTS ANTI-VACCINS ET ANTI-PASSE SANITAIRE.” There you will find that while just 10% of Macron’s electorate express even modest comprehension of anti-vaxxers and anti-health-pass people, the comparable percentages are 66% for Mélenchon and 53% for both Le Pen and Mélenchon.

Political scientists like to speak of “cleavage structures,” and here is a ready-made cleavage structure for Macron to exploit. Not only does he dramatically set himself against extremes of both right and left, he also puts his other rival, Valérie Pécresse, in a difficult position, because her base resembles Macron’s more than Mélenchon’s, Zemmour’s, or Le Pen’s, with only 24% showing any sympathy for the anti-vaxxers (and most of them are no doubt from the Ciotti faction of the Republicans). Pécresse is reduced to attacking Macron for “vulgarity,” but on the core of the issue the core of her support agrees with him. This bit of Macron verbal slippage will probably serve his interests well.

Anti-vax will rival immigration and crime as the driving issues in this campaign.


Photo Credits: Jacques Paquier (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Alexander Price says:

    “I’d really like to shit on them.” seems too strong in English, even if more literally accurate. A fully satisfying translation doesn’t seem possible here. The phrase “piss them off” isn’t quite right because the sense of “emmerder” in this case is closer to “harass,” “to make things difficult for” than ” annoy” or “anger.” But “shit on them” doesn’t convey that either.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks to Mr. Price for his elaboration of the nuances of “emmerder”.
    I add only that the use of “merde” in French is a widespread in the theatre: to wish “Merde!” on a thespian is the equivalent of the English “break a leg” –Have a smash hit!
    I was told that the use of the word in this fashion derives from the observation that if there was a lot of “merde” in the street in front of a theatre, it was a sign that the production had sold well, bringing many horse-drawn carriages to the spot –as well as horse effluvia.

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