Emmanuel Macron and François Legault may share the same mother tongue, but they speak very different political languages. While one wields his words like an Olympic fencer thrusts his épée, the other seeks to engage with voters in distinctly quotidian prose. One likes to flash his intellectual prowess, while the other emphasizes his common sense.
Yet the French President and Quebec Premier, who are both up for re-election in 2022, have embraced similar political strategies as they fend off criticism of their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each has stooped to stigmatizing the non-vaccinated as a diversionary tactic, despite the danger inherent in pitting an exasperated majority against a misunderstood minority.
With the Omicron variant sending COVID-19 infections through the roof in France, Mr. Macron kicked off the new year by saying he intended to make life difficult for his country’s vaccine hold-outs, whom he said accounted for 85 per cent of COVID-19 patients in French intensive care units. English-language media largely settled on the expression “to piss off the unvaccinated” to translate the comments Mr. Macron made in Le Parisien newspaper. But the vulgar and colloquial French verb he used – emmerder – has several meanings, including “to harass.” Regardless of what he meant, the President’s comments struck a nerve.
Barely 8 per cent of French adults remain unvaccinated, which makes them an easy target. Most of them are young and disengaged, curmudgeonly contrarian, minorities cut off from mainstream French society or far-right ideologues. So, Mr. Macron did not risk losing many supporters by lumping them all together as deplorables. He also planted a wedge in the main centre-right opposition party, Les Républicains, whose nominee in April’s presidential election, Valérie Pécresse, remains the only candidate who stands a credible chance of beating him.
A former Socialist cabinet minister, Mr. Macron, as President, has revealed himself as a classic centre-right French politician. His attack on the unvaccinated – whom he suggested had broken an unwritten social contract – appealed to French conservatives who think rights come with responsibilities. It also left his far-right adversaries Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, along with the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, caught between their defence of the unvaccinated minority and the majority of unaligned French voters fed up with the pandemic.
Politically speaking, Mr. Macron hit it out of the park. But harassing the unvaccinated has its limits as a pandemic management strategy.
The same can be said of Mr. Legault’s plan, announced on Tuesday, to tax the roughly 10 per cent of eligible Quebeckers who continue to refuse to take even a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. By pulling this rabbit out of the hat at a press conference following the sudden resignation of the province’s director of public health, Horacio Arruda, Mr. Legault succeeded spectacularly in changing the subject and avoiding uncomfortable questions about whether Dr. Arruda was just the fall guy for his own government’s often confused pandemic messaging.
Mr. Legault said taxing the unvaccinated is justified because they make up half of the patients in Quebec ICU beds. But blaming the unvaccinated for the crisis overwhelming Quebec’s health care system, which was bursting at the seams long before COVID-19, is a bit like blaming the last straw for breaking the camel’s back.
As of Wednesday, there were 263 COVID patients in Quebec ICUs, of which 45 per cent (or 118) were unvaccinated. If they are to be taxed, then it follows that so must anyone who conducts themselves in a manner that increases their likelihood of ending up in the hospital. But before going that far, any society considering such drastic action needs to take a long and hard look in the mirror. It is certainly not the kind of decision any premier should spring on the population without notice.
“In order to avoid paying a health fee or a COVID fine, there is a simple solution: a free and accessible vaccine,” tweeted Mr. Legault’s chief of staff, Martin Koskinen. “We have rights, but also responsibilities. The democratic debate on this question will be fascinating.”
There had been zero public debate in Quebec before Mr. Legault announced this “significant” new tax on the unvaccinated. Mr. Koskinen’s tweet suggests the idea could be dropped just like his Coalition Avenir Québec dropped its half-baked plan to fire or suspend unvaccinated health care workers, which also collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
The unvaccinated have certainly complicated efforts everywhere to minimize COVID-19 infections and manage scarce health care resources – though just how much they deserve to be blamed for the current crisis in our hospitals is, well, debatable.
Mr. Legault and Mr. Macron are embarking on a slippery slope by stigmatizing them.
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