French President Emmanuel Macron has warned he intends to make life difficult for people in France who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19.
“I really want to hassle them, and we will continue to do this – to the end,” he told France’s Le Parisien newspaper.
But political opponents said the strong language he used in the interview was not worthy of a president.
His comments prompted MPs to suspend debate on a law barring the unvaccinated from much of public life.
The session in the National Assembly was halted for a second night running as opposition delegates complained about the president’s language, with one leading figure describing it as “unworthy, irresponsible and premeditated”.
The legislation was expected to be approved in a vote this week, but it has angered vaccine opponents and several French MPs have said they have received death threats over the issue.
Mandatory vaccinations are being introduced in several European countries, with Austria leading the way for over-14s from next month and Germany planning a similar move for adults.
In his interview with Le Parisien on Tuesday, Macron said that while he would not “vaccinate by force”, he hoped to encourage people to get jabbed by “limiting as much as possible their access to activities in social life”.
“I won’t send [unvaccinated people] to prison,” he said. “So we need to tell them, from 15 January, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema.”
The word used by Macron – emmerder – is a vulgar term meaning to annoy and, four months before the French presidential election, it prompted a strong reaction from opposition politicians.
“No health emergency justifies such words,” tweeted Bruno Retailleau, Senate leader of the right-wing Republicans. “Emmanuel Macron says he has learned to love the French, but it seems he especially likes to despise them.”
One of the main candidates for the presidency, Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans, said she was outraged that the president had accused unvaccinated people of not being citizens. “You have to accept them as they are – lead them, bring them together and not insult them,” she told CNews.
Far-right leader Marine le Pen tweeted: “A president shouldn’t say that… Emmanuel Macron is unworthy of his office.”
Meanwhile, leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon described the remarks as an “astonishing confession”. “It is clear, the vaccination pass is a collective punishment against individual freedom,” he added.
Similar language was used by President Georges Pompidou in 1966, but, in contrast to Macron, he said it was time to stop annoying the French. Macron ally Christophe Castaner said on Wednesday that “the phrase didn’t shock anyone when it came out of Pompidou’s mouth”.
France has one of the highest Covid vaccination rates in the EU, with more than 90% of the adult population double-jabbed, and Macron has highlighted the estimated five million people who remain unvaccinated.
For months France has asked people to show either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to access many public venues.
But the French government wants to remove the option to show a negative test in response to record increases in infections, driven by the highly contagious Omicron and Delta variants of Covid.
On Tuesday, the country reported 271,686 new daily Covid cases – the highest number of daily infections recorded in France since the start of the pandemic.
Macron is still yet to formally declare he will stand for a second term but told Le Parisien in Tuesday’s interview that he wanted to run and would clarify his decision “once the health situation allows it”.