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French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a media conference at the conclusion of an EU Summit in Brussels on Dec. 17, 2021.JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

The French government on Wednesday defended President Emmanuel Macron’s use of coarse language in a stepped-up campaign against France’s unvaccinated, after his words drew condemnation from the opposition and mixed reactions from voters.

Mr. Macron said he wanted to “piss off” unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting jabbed. He was speaking in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper in which he also called unvaccinated people irresponsible and unworthy of being considered citizens.

“A president cannot say such things,” Christian Jacob, chair of the conservative Les Républicains 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 spokesman Gabriel Attal said that, amid a “supersonic” rise in COVID cases, the government stood by Mr. Macron’s comments.

“Who is pissing off who today?” Mr. Attal said, quoting health workers struggling to cope or businesses hurt by the pandemic. “It’s those who refuse the vaccine.”

People who got the jab are “exasperated” with the unvaccinated, Prime Minister Jean Castex said.

With a presidential election due in April in which he is expected to run, Mr. Macron may have calculated enough people are now vaccinated – and upset with remaining the vaccine-hesitant population – for his comment to go down well with voters.

In a country where more than 124,000 people have died of COVID-19, his words resonated with some.

“He’s right,” said 89-year-old Paris pensioner Jean, who has 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.”

France has historically had more vaccine skeptics than many of its neighbours, and pandemic restrictions have triggered many street protests, but nearly 90 per cent of those of the age of 12 have now been inoculated, one of the continent’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rates.

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 cafés 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 several suspensions of the parliamentary debate on the vaccine pass after the interview was published late on Tuesday.

“I’m in favour of the vaccine pass, but I cannot back a text whose objective is to ‘piss off’ the French,” Mr. Jacob told parliament. “Is that your objective, yes or no?”

A government source said they were not worried about the adoption of the text, despite the heated parliamentary debate, which resumed on Wednesday afternoon, and hundreds of amendments.

The initial plan was for the new legislation to enter into force on Jan.15. One or two days of delay would not change much, the source said. After the lower house of parliament eventually votes it, the bill will go to the senate for approval.

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