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From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing

French President Emmanuel Macron has grabbed headlines after saying that he wanted to 'emmerder' those who choose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19. But he is far from the first French president to slip into colourful language.

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing
Emmanuel Macron at the statue of Charles de Gaulle. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP

“I really want to piss off the unvaccinated,” French President Emmanuel Macron, drawing widespread condemnation for his choice of language.

In an interview with Le Parisien, he said that la bêtise (“stupidity”) was the “worst enemy of democracy”.

It is not the first time that the leader has used fruity language since being elected.

He has variously described the French as fainéants (lazy), les gens qui ne sont rien (people who are nothing), and Gaulois réfractaires (Gauls who are resistant to change). During a visit to a factory, he once said that protestors outside of a factory should go to work rather than foutre le bordel (“fuck things up” – or literally, “fuck up the brothel”). 

READ MORE Macron’s vow to ‘piss off’ unvaxxed was deliberate and won’t hurt his election chances

Serving as the Economy Minister under the presidency of François Hollande, he said “there were lots of illiterate people” during a visit to an abattoir. 

“In a certain way, we are like prostitutes: this job is about seducing,” told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, describing his former job as a banker. 

Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder – “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated

Other French leaders have dished out their fair share of provocative statements – some more discretely than others. 

François Hollande 

Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, allegedly referred to the protesters and poor people as sans dents (toothless people). The revelation came after his 2017 election defeat and was disclosed by his ex-partner, Valérie Trierweiler – although we should probably point that she wasn’t exactly his biggest fan after he was caught having an affair with an actress while they were together. 

Nicolas Sarkozy 

Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as president from 2007-12 is perhaps the most prolific French head of state when it comes to outrageous language. 

During a visit to the 2008 Salon de l’Agriculture, he was shaking hands with people in the crowd.

One man told him Ah non, touche-moi pas! Tu me salis! (No, don’t touch me! You disgust me!). 

The President replied Eh ben casse-toi alors, pauv’ con ! (Well fuck off then, asshole).

Sarkozy described Hollande as an amateur, mal fagoté (shabbily dressed) and un président ridicule (a ridiculous president). He said of his own party that they were tous des cons (all idiots). He described Marine Le Pen as une hommasse (mannish/butch), Xavier Bertrand as un médiocre and François Fillon (who served as Prime Minister during Sarkozy’s presidency) as un loser

As Interior Minister, Sarkozy described the residents of Argenteuil as racaille (scum) after a visit to the Parisian suburb saw his convoy ambushed by people throwing objects from tower block.

Jacques Chirac

Jacques Chirac is best known internationally for his opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

While he may have been reluctant to launch military attacks, verbal assaults were his strong point. 

Before becoming President, he served as Prime Minister where he met with Margaret Thatcher at a European summit. After a disagreement, he told reporters: Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veut en plus cette ménagère? Mes couilles sur un plateau? (What does this housewife want? My balls on a plate?)

Other highlights include:

Les emmerdes, ça vole toujours en escadrille –  Shits always fly together 

Les sondages, ça va ça vient, c’est comme la queue d’un chien – Polls come and go, like a dog’s cock

On greffe de tout aujourd’hui, des reins, des bras, un cœur. Sauf les couilles. Par manque de donneur – We transplant everything today, kidneys, arms, a heart. But not balls – because of a lack of donors. 

For a much longer list of Chirac’s insults, gaffes and hot-mic moments, click HERE.

Charles de Gaulle

As the founding father of the fifth republic, it would be wrong not to include Charles de Gaulle on this prestigious list. 

In 1968 the president used the word chienlit to describe the social disorder around the 1968 student uprisings. It translates as “shitting in your own bed”.

Adored by many, he also uttered some fairly contemptuous words about his countrymen, saying Les Français sont des veaux  – The French are calves (suggesting weak, easily led)

Macron is something of a fan of De Gaulle, even including one of the General’s books in the background of his official portrait, so perhaps he is also emulating his language? 

Georges Clemenceau 

Georges Clemenceau was the Prime Minister of France during the latter part of WWI. He was known to have a difficult relationship with his British counterpart, David Llyod George. He once said je pouvais pisser comme il parle (I could piss when he speaks). 

Clemenceau described one of his political rivals, the pacifist Jean Jaurès, as a “dangerous imbecile”. 

Napoleon 

Napoleon Bonaparte was betrayed by one of his ministers, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who sold state secrets to France’s enemies. 

After finding out, Napoleon reportedly said Vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie! (You are shit at the bottom of a silk stocking). 

Coincidentally, Talleyrand is the man credited with popularising escargots in France

Member comments

  1. What is remarkable about Macron’s outburst is that it was directed at all those that will no longer qualify for the Pass – including unvaccinated children over the age of 12 ( amended by Parliament to those over 16 ). It must be a first for a President of France to be so vitriolic and scathing of the children of the Republic ( Les enfants Terribles ? )

  2. Not great translation there :
    ‘Vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie!’ means ‘your’e a shit in silk stockings’
    ‘je pouvais pisser comme il parle’ – ‘If I could piss like he talks’ (unless you’ve mis-spelt comme)

    And I still think that to translate ’emmerder’ as ‘piss off’ is a tad too strong.

  3. “Les sondages, ça va ça vient, c’est comme la queue d’un chien – Polls come and go, like a dog’s cock.”

    I read that as “a dog’s tail.” Am I wrong? Easy enough to imagine a dog’s tail wagging to and fro. It fits…

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STRIKES

Do French unions still have the power to stop a government in its tracks?

French unions are preparing for the 'mother of all battles' against planned pension reform - but do the unions still wield the power to halt a government reform?

Do French unions still have the power to stop a government in its tracks?

The government and the unions are squaring up for battle over plans to reform the pension system and raise the retirement age to 64 – with the first day of action called for Thursday, January 19th.

French unions have a good historical record when it comes to blocking pension reform – former presidents including Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were forced to drop or at least modify plans for pension reform after furious protests and strikes. 

You can hear us discuss the strikes on the latest episode of the Talking France podcast, download it HERE or listen on the link below.

However the unions’ more recent record is less good – two months of strikes in 2019/20 did not succeed in stopping Emmanuel Macron’s first pension reform, while the most significant social movement of recent years – the ‘yellow vests’ – took place without union involvement.

So have France’s once mighty unions lost their power?

First day of protests

January 19th is the first strike day, and has been billed by unions as “the first day of mobilisation” with more to come – strikes and other protests are expected to continue until March, when the pension reform bill comes before parliament.

Calendar: Key dates in the French pension strikes 

Our politics expert John Lichfield told us: “This is a big moment for the unions. It’s a big moment for Macron as well because he has decided to push ahead with this, but for the unions also it’s a big moment because they have failed on a couple of other occasions recently.”

Unions have promised the ‘mother of all battles’ to defeat the planned pension reform, and it begins on Thursday, January 19th with a one-day strike and demonstrations in towns and cities across France.

The disruption to services – especially trains, Paris public transport and schools – looks likely to be significant, but there is another marker for the success of the action; how many people turn out for the demos.

John said: “The trades unions have set themselves up either for a big success or a big failure again on Thursday – they’re saying that want a million people on the streets and have set that as the benchmark for success or failure.

“They will of course claim there were a million people out whether there are or not, but there are ways of knowing how many people were there.

“If the turnout isn’t close to a million people I think that will be a success for the government, a sign that the mood of the country is against this reform but kind of resigned at the same time and not really willing to support the kind of long, guerrilla action that some of the unions are talking about.” 

Membership

So how many people are members of a union in France? It’s probably a lot less than you think, around eight percent of French workers are members of a union, they are strongly concentrated in the public sector, and membership has been falling for years. 

Crucially, however, workers do not have to be members of a union in order to strike. 

John said: “I’ve always said that you should view French unions more like political parties – they represent a point of view which goes beyond their actual membership and that’s why it is important for them to win the battle.

“They’re now facing a battle with their own memberships as well who have come to disregard or disrespect the central management of the unions and often take action of their own.”

France has eight union federations and they represent different political views – from the moderate CFDT to the radical CGT and Sud.

Hardline unions like the CGT are far more likely to call strikes – and to take direct action such as blockading refineries, cutting off power to sports grounds (as happened during the 2019 pension strikes) and cutting off power to the homes of politicians who back the pension reforms (as they have threatened to do this time, although it is unclear whether this is actually possible).

Their pronouncements tend to make headlines, but the fracturing of unions along political lines means that each union only represents a small portion of train drivers, teachers etc and therefore union actions only have real impact on services when they work together.

Pension reform is one of the few issues that can unite all eight of the union federations, and this is one of the reasons why pension protests tend to be big.

John told us: “One thing this time is that the eight federations are united – it’s rare for them to be all united because they have differing political views, but they are all united this time. The more moderate CFDT and CFTC are involved along with the militant ones like Sud and CGT.

“To what extent they will all stay involved to the bitter end is another question.”

Public support

Another crucial aspect for a successful protest is strong support from the public. Although most polls suggest that the French public are strongly opposed to raising the retirement age, support for strikes is less clear cut.

John said: “The public mood is very difficult to read and the polls are very strange in some ways. Around 60 to 70 percent of people are against this reform but not necessarily all reforms of the pension system – I don’t know what they have in mind apart from this – around 50 percent say they support the idea of fairly strong industrial action to stop the reforms.

“But it’s whether those people will turn out in big numbers that is the crucial question.”

Wildcat strikes

It’s perhaps significant that one of the biggest social movements in France in recent years had no union involvement – the ‘yellow vest’ protests grew out of Facebook groups and other online forums and had no formal organisation structure.

Many of the protesters’ complaints, such as the high cost of living and insecure working conditions, were core issues for the unions, and yet attempts by union leaders to get involved in the movement were largely rebuffed. 

At the same time, unions themselves have seen a growth in ‘wildcat’ strikes and unauthorised actions by members at a local level, and have experienced difficulty in keeping control of actions.

John said: “There’s now a new trend in France for small groups of trade unionists in a particular place to start taking action on their own without the involvement or the blessing of the union headquarters in Paris.

“This is worrying for the unions and worrying for the government and it’s a slight ‘yellow vest-ification’, if you like, of the union movement – people taking action into their own hands.

“For instance the oil refinery strikes in October last year that saw filling stations across the country run dry were something that was out of control, really, of the CGT union bosses in Paris and was run by militant figures at a local level.

“This time you already see those same workers talking about closing down refineries or reducing the output of refineries if this reform is pushed ahead with, which it will be. 

“There are some who fear that will happen again this time and this whole movement will spill out of the control of the unions and therefore out of control of the government so it’s a very difficult one to read.

He added: “Overall, how strong are French unions? On paper, not really. In reality, they have proved they can bring the country to a halt if they are all united. They might be able to do it again this time, but they have a lot of internal battles and weaknesses to confront as well.”

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