Who are the ten per cent of the French population that Emmanuel Macron wishes to 'emmerder' or, as we say on this side on the Channel, 'piss off'? It is a question that is rarely scrutinised, certainly by the foreign press. Are the refuseniks the Gallic answers to Novak Djokovic and Piers Corbyn?
There is in France, as in Britain, a vocal and aggressive anti-vax movement who propagate all manner of wild conspiracy theories about the jab. But they are in the minority among the unvaccinated. On the rare occasions when the French media probe the background of the five million who have declined the vaccination they find that they are predominantly young city-dwellers, often unemployed or on low incomes.
The two regions that boast the best vaccine uptake (83 per cent) are the Vendée and Finistère in the west of France. In contrast, the two regions where people are most reluctant to be jabbed are Upper Corsica and the northern Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, with just 65 per cent of the population jabbed. The figure is even worse in the deprived and crime-ridden 15th arrondissement of Marseille, where only 45 per cent have received two vaccines
What these areas share is a 'separatist' mentality. The Corsican nationalist movement renounced violence a few years ago but there remains among the people a streak of fierce independence, and with it a distrust of any edict that comes from Paris.
In the north of Marseille and in Seine-Saint-Denis, which has the largest immigrant population in France, there is also an ideological secession from the Republic, in these cases inspired by Islam. Seine-Saint-Denis has been described as the 'epicentre of French Jihadism' and provided Isis with many recruits.
Seine-Saint-Denis has a large Muslim population and, as repeated polls in France have shown, a great many youths are not well-disposed towards their country. One survey in 2020 revealed that 74 per cent of French Muslims under the age of 25 placed more importance on their religious laws than those of the Republic. A poll last month disclosed that when the same question was asked of Muslim high school pupils, 65 per cent said their allegiance was to Islamic law.
Many of France's estimated six millions Muslims are vaccinated. When the roll-out began in France in early 2021, the Commission of Imams of the Grande Mosque of Paris gave their unequivocal endorsement of the vaccine. But the Commission of Imams holds little sway in scores of 'lost territories' of the Republic, a term coined twenty years ago by the historian Georges Bensoussan. Last year, a book was published entitled 'The Territories Conquered by Islamism' in which the author, the Middle East specialist Bernard Rougier, depicted a parallel society. The Republic is regarded by some who live there as 'a machine to destroy Islam'.
The candidate seen by many as Macron's main challenger in April's election, the centre-right Valerie Pécresse, last week vowed to 'clean up these neighbourhoods that have become areas without laws and sometimes without France'. She joked she will use a power hose but something stronger will be required given the proliferation of assault rifles within the 'lost territories'.
There are, of course, many fine hard-working people who live in Seine-Saint-Denis. My ex-wife teaches in a state school there, and says that one of her biggest challenges is disabusing her pupils of the many conspiracy theories that abound on social media sites, many of which claim that the French state is hostile to Muslims.
One wonders how the 35 per cent of the unvaccinated in Seine-Saint-Denis felt when they heard the words of their president. Many won't be impacted by the introduction of the new vaccine passport that effectively shuts out from society those men and women who aren't triple vaccinated. They are already culturally cut off from the country in which they live; they don't frequent bars or restaurants, or visit museums or theatres.
This was a point made when the passport was implemented in July by Alexis Spire, a director at the National Centre for Scientific Research. 'To reach the reticent among the working class and the suburbs, it would be better off trying to convince rather than threaten,' he said.
Macron has embarked on the latter course and, as he has acknowledged, his choice of words last week was no accident. His tough-talking was a campaign appeal to the 90 per cent of vaccinated ahead of April's election. One might call it dog whistle politics, a wink to those in France who lean to the right and are as yet undecided as to how they will vote.
'He is saying out loud what many people are thinking in silence,’ said Roland Lescure, a Macron-supporting MP. ‘The freedom of the ten per cent of non-vaccinated people ends where the freedom of the 90 per cent who are vaccinated begins. That's it.’
If Macron really wanted to 'piss off' the ten per cent he would follow the example of several other EU countries and make vaccination mandatory. But he dare not because he knows that such a law would be unenforceable in the 'lost territories'. The police are already afraid to enter these enclaves, so what chance doctors and nurses? Instead Macron isolates them even more, and insults the people within. For years the political class in France has championed Vivre-Ensemble ('Live together'), but that social utopia has been destroyed by Macron in one sneering sentence
Words have consequences, a fact that seems to have eluded Macron throughout his presidency. His declaration in the same controversial interview that 'irresponsible people are no longer citizens' is arguably more inflammatory than his crude bullying of the unvaccinated.
The extremists and the drug gangs in these enclaves have never regarded themselves as citizens of France, but they will use the president's populist rhetoric to recruit more disaffected youths to their cause and sow more divisions within French society. It will take more than a vaccination to cure that particular ill.