Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

Macron’s Vulgarity Is a Big Deal

What the French president’s choice of swear word reveals about his style of governance.

By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
An illustration of French President Emmanuel Macron and the word emmerder.
An illustration of French President Emmanuel Macron and the word emmerder.
Andrei Cojocaru illustration for Foreign Policy/Getty Images

This week, French politicians and pundits have, like Capt. Renault at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, fallen over one another to express their shock that cussing is going on in France. What’s worse, the cussing is coming not from the corner cafe but instead from inside the presidential palace, the Elysée.

Merde, alors.

In fact, the French word merde, meaning “shit”or, more precisely, the related verb emmerder—is the swear word in question. Remarkably, with this word, President Emmanuel Macron seems to have sworn war against a minority of his fellow French.

This week, French politicians and pundits have, like Capt. Renault at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, fallen over one another to express their shock that cussing is going on in France. What’s worse, the cussing is coming not from the corner cafe but instead from inside the presidential palace, the Elysée.

Merde, alors.

In fact, the French word merde, meaning “shit”or, more precisely, the related verb emmerder—is the swear word in question. Remarkably, with this word, President Emmanuel Macron seems to have sworn war against a minority of his fellow French.


On Jan. 4, the newspaper Le Parisien published an interview between Macron and several readers. Inevitably, the exchange, held in the Elysée and lasting more than two hours, turned to the government’s response to the omicron wave sweeping across France. One participant, an emergency room nurse, expressed her frustration at the number of unvaccinated patients infected with COVID-19 flooding her hospital.

Nodding his head in agreement, Macron launched into an account of his policy toward the unvaccinated. It had reached a point, he said, that the government had no choice but to impose a nationwide vaccine pass. In recent months, one could enter restaurants, bars, cultural venues, and long-distance public transport with a health pass, given to those with either proof of vaccination or a negative test. Starting on Jan. 15, however, only people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will have access to those public sites.

For the roughly 8 percent of adults still unvaccinated in France, Macron had fighting words. “Moi, d’habitude je ne suis pas là pour emmerder les Francais. … Eh bien là, les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder.” This was translated by most English news outlets as something like: “I am not here to piss off the French. … But the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off.” What is emmerdant—annoying—for language purists, however, is that this is not completely accurate. “Emmerder” does not literally mean “piss off.” Instead, it means—pardon my French—“to shit on.”

Of course, linguists debate the word’s degree of vulgarity. Some define its usage as merely familiar, while others insist it is stridently offensive. (As with its English equivalent, I, for one, will jokingly use it with friends and family, but never with a stranger or acquaintance unless I have excellent cause.) But political figures were united, and just about every one of them has lectured or lambasted Macron for his remarks. There was something rich in the feigned outrage of Marine Le Pen—the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the racist founder of her party—over Macron’s “vulgarity,” or that of her competitor to the bottom, Éric Zemmour—fined several times for racist remarks—who wagged his finger at Macron’s “cynical declaration” and “avowed cruelty.” Most limpid was the Socialist Anne Hidalgo’s response: Quoting Macron’s words in a tweet, she added “Réunir la France,” or “Reunite France.”

There are presidential precedents for the word’s use. A number of Macron’s defenders recalled the well-known remark made in 1966 by then-Prime Minister Georges Pompidou. When a young assistant—Jacques Chirac, who would go on to become president three decades later—handed him a stack of laws to sign, Pompidou exploded: “Mais arrêtez donc d’emmerder les Français!”—“Stop bothering the French already! There are too many laws, too many texts, too many regulations in this country!”

Yet these same defenders omitted that Pompidou’s remark only surfaced in an advisor’s memoir a few decades later. As to why Macron’s use of emmerder—which appears to deliberately echo Pompidou’s own phrase—created a rare consensus among leaders across the political spectrum, it is perhaps because some of them really are shocked. But it is also possible that most of them grasp that the function of swearing is not just to abuse those outside one’s group, but to reinforce bonds between those who belong to your own group. A presidential election looms in April, and what is an election if not the defining and defending of tribes?


While it is not clear if Macron’s remark was planned or premeditated, it is clear he does not find it problematic. As is the rule at Macron’s Elysée, his staff must first vet and sign off on published interviews. A few days later, moreover, Macron fully embraced the word. When asked at a press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen whether he regretted using the word emmerder, Macron replied: “I completely own up to [that remark].” It was his way, he explained, to “sound the alarm.”

Macron has a history of dismissive or disdainful remarks. Among the highlights of this reel are his remark that busy train stations offer a view of “those who are winners and those who are losers,” his observation that France gives “crazy amounts of cash” to the poor, his advice to an unemployed farmer to “cross the street” to find a job in a cafe or hotel, and his best wishes to a 73-year-old woman injured by the police during the so-called yellow vest protests for “a quick recovery and perhaps a kind of wisdom” to avoid such events in the future.

But his “emmerder” remark differs not just in tone but in type from these earlier sallies. With this alloy of scorn and scatology, according to some otherwise sympathetic observers, Macron crossed a semantic line. Though it sounds naive, wrote Isabelle de Gaulmyn, a columnist with liberal Catholic paper La Croix, words—particularly those uttered by a nation’s leader—carry great weight. Who if not the president, she asked, should safeguard language from the extremism that threatens France?

Mostly, though, the shock expressed by most critics at Macron’s cursing seems to have been as premeditated as Macron’s use of the word. His reasons for unleashing it, commentators agree, are tied to the political calendar. Timing is, in this case, everything. The presidential elections are just three months away, and while Macron has yet to officially declare his candidacy, he is already running—and pulling ahead. Polls show that he is outdistancing Valérie Pécresse (who enjoyed a brief polling bounce when she won the primary for the Republicans last month) and Le Pen, his second-round rival in 2017. At the same time, Zemmour seems hard-pressed to close the gap with Le Pen on the far-right, while the half-dozen candidates on the left are still squabbling among themselves.

Macron seems to believe that his tough words and policy will galvanize his centrist base and peel away some conservative voters. Clearly caught by surprise by Macron’s interview, members of his own party, La République En Marche! (the Republic in Motion), defended their leader by insisting that he was just speaking frankly to the French. His aggressive language will especially appeal to younger voters, Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research specializing in communication, has said. This age group, which tends to abstain from voting, may well prove pivotal in the election. More than 60 percent of French youth shunned the voting booths during the 2019 European elections—and France’s political parties are now scrambling for solutions.

While he may be callous, as his critics charge, Macron is not crazy. He does not seek, as Hidalgo urged, to reunite France, but instead to reunite the nation’s majority against its minority. The former is fed up with the never-ending and shape-shifting pandemic, frightened by the stress on understaffed and overwhelmed hospitals, and frustrated by those who, for a host of reasons, refuse to assent to vaccination. Despite the nation’s reputation for stubborn individualism, a recent Ifop poll revealed that 7 out of 10 French favor mandatory vaccination. Indeed, so many are so fed up, frightened, and frustrated—all for good reasons—that they may well forgive another, perhaps even more inflammatory line Macron uttered during the same interview: “When my freedom comes to endanger the freedom of others, I am irresponsible. Someone who is irresponsible is no longer a citizen.”

This claim—that French citizenship can be revoked, seemingly at the will of the president—has not pissed off some commentators as much as Macron’s vow to piss off some of the French. Yet this is a striking assertion for a president to make in any democratic nation. It is especially so in a nation that gave the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Indeed, Macron’s recent declarations reveal an alarming twist to the usual reading of France’s founding document. In the traditional New Year’s address a few days before, Macron previewed his statement by announcing that a “citizen’s freedom entails responsibility for oneself and others, and that duties come before rights.” According to the political analyst Jean Quatremer, such a claim—particularly by a government that has arrogated to itself increasing powers since the start of the pandemic—suggests that France is under new management: “a regime where the state gives or takes away a citizen’s rights in relation to duties it alone defines.”

If this smacks of the powers of a monarch rather than a president, there is good reason. Thanks to a constitution fitted to the vast dimensions of former French President Charles de Gaulle, a modern French national leader resembles less a republican president—at least in the American sense—than, in the political scientist Maurice Duverger’s apt phrase, a republican monarch. They have the constitutional power to dissolve Parliament, assume temporarily both the legislative and executive functions, and determine foreign and defense policies. As François Mitterrand, a bitter opponent of de Gaulle’s assumption of power, drily remarked two decades later upon becoming president: “I did not design this office. But I find it fits me well.” Five years ago, Macron famously—or, rather, infamously—declared that the French expected a “Jupiterian” president, by which he meant a figure of ultimate authority. (Macron was keen to distinguish his conception of the presidency from that of his predecessor—and former boss—François Hollande, who fatally lacked this quality.) 

In the end, it appears that Macron is not just cussing but is also gambling that his use of emmerder will win him another term. With nearly 80 percent of En Marche! voters and, critically, more than 40 percent of both conservative and Socialist voters favoring his language in regards to his vaccine policy, Macron may well win this bet. If so, his critics fear that it will be an emmerdant harbinger for democracy in France.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

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