Emmanuel Macron turned on France's five million people still unvaccinated against the coronavirus on Tuesday, vowing to "piss them off" as part of his government's strategy.
The French president's comments in a newspaper interview came on the day France reported another daily record with more than 271,000 COVID-19 infections, as the Omicron variant continues to drive a fifth wave of the virus.
They look set to politicise the debate over vaccinations still further, three months before the French presidential election. The government is currently trying to get plans for a new "vaccine pass" through parliament.
Macron told Le Parisien that he had decided to act against the non-vaccinated, by "limiting as much as possible their access to social life activity".
"The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off. And so we will continue to do so, to the bitter end. That's the strategy," the head of state said. "When my freedom comes to threaten that of other people, I become irresponsible. An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen."
The president's language is being seen as an inversion of a comment by one of his predecessors Georges Pompidou, who said it was time to "stop pissing off the French people" in 1966 when he was prime minister.
"I am not going to put them in prison, I am not going to forcibly vaccinate them," Macron went on. "Therefore you have to say to them: from January 15 you can no longer go to a restaurant, you can no longer go for a drink, you can no longer go for a coffee, you can no longer go to the theatre, you can no longer go to the cinema," the president said.
Government doubles down
The president was backed on Wednesday by his prime minister and government spokesman, both of whom -- far from distancing themselves from either his sentiment or his language -- pointedly nailed their colours to Macron's mast.
"Who outrages the nation? Who fractures the nation? Who drives the nursing staff in our casualty departments to make drastic ethical choices? Ah well it's a tiny minority," Prime Minister Jean Castex told France's Senate. "To be a citizen is also to have obligations."
"Who pisses off whose life today?" said government spokesman Gabriel Attal at an earlier news conference. "Who ruins the life of our nursing staff who've been mobilised for two years, snowed under in our intensive care units to save patients who today are largely unvaccinated? It's those who are opposed to the vaccine."
He also accused the non-vaccinated of "ruining the life" of shopkeepers, restaurant owners, theatres and cinemas, as well as "elderly people forced to live in solitude, in fear faced with an epidemic".
Meanwhile a journalist from Le Parisien, present at the interview as Macron was questioned by readers, made it clear the president's office had seen the transcript of his comments and had sought no changes.
Comments prompt furore
Amid inflamed tensions, the National Assembly resumed its debate on Wednesday afternoon following two days of interruptions. The government is trying to push through its plans to turn the current "health pass" into a "vaccine pass" which would prevent unvaccinated people from accessing certain public spaces, even with a negative test.
Tuesday night saw more rowdy scenes in the chamber, the day after MPs refused to examine the bill in a surprise rebuke to the government.
As opposition politicians lined up to attack what they said were "unworthy" and "insulting" remarks by Macron, the session was suspended just before 2am. "The conditions for a serene place of work are not assembled," said the president of the session.
The president's remarks brought immediate condemnation from political rivals, including likely opponents in the upcoming election. Far-right candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen both took to Twitter to criticise Macron, Le Pen accusing him of "persisting in division" and of seeking to "make the non-vaccinated second-class citizens".
The presidential candidate for the right-wing Republicans party, Valérie Pécresse, followed up on Wednesday, saying she was "offended" by Macron's comments. "It's not for the president of the Republic to separate good from bad French people," she said.
Sophie, an unvaccinated 65-year-old, told Euronews the president's language was counterproductive. She had intended to get the jab but hesitated over safety concerns. "The more you get threats like that, the more people will resist," she said.
'No health crisis if everyone vaccinated'
France reported 271,686 daily COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, a new record as the new Omicron variant continued to spread throughout the country.
The previous record was around 230,000 new cases in a single day last week.
As the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic -- propelled by the Omicron variant -- continued to take its toll, figures from the French national health agency showed that more than 20,000 patients were in hospital with COVID-19, an increase of 2,881 since Monday. Another 297 COVID-related deaths in hospital were registered.
The number of people in intensive care with COVID-19 stood at 3,665, a long way off the more than 7,000 during the first wave in 2020, but approaching the 4,900 seen during the second wave the same year.
The unvaccinated form the vast majority of coronavirus patients in France's intensive care units. Figures from December 19 show that whereas the number of people aged over 20 with three vaccine jabs in intensive care was 4.82 per million of population, among the unvaccinated the proportion rose to 182 per million.
Some hospitals have been rescheduling treatment for other diseases to deal with the COVID crisis. In the Paris region, hospitals have been told to postpone surgery and other medical treatment where possible.
"If everyone was vaccinated, there wouldn't be a health crisis," Rémi Salomon, president of the medical commission for the APHP which represents public hospitals in the Paris region, told FranceInfo on Wednesday.
The government's critics accuse it of failing to deliver on promises to increase the number of intensive care beds in France since the start of the pandemic.
Just over 77% of France's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the national health authority Public Health France. Among those aged over 12 who have received at least one dose, almost 90% are considered fully vaccinated.
Health Minister Olivier Véran said 66,000 received their first vaccine dose on Wednesday, a record since October 1. "I don't believe it's a coincidence," he told parliament.
Figures published earlier showed an average of nearly 23,000 first jabs each day over the past week.
The high number of infections comes after France carried out eight million COVID-19 tests last week, the minister said previously, with the positivity rate creeping up to 15%.
Doctors say however that although Omicron patients are being treated in hospital, the vast majority of intensive care cases are people with the Delta variant.
While France closed nightclubs in December amid rising COVID cases, the government shied away from imposing stricter measures over the holidays, focussing instead on pushing a COVID-19 booster dose campaign.
Several new measures have now come into effect in the new year, including a mask mandate on children from the age of six in indoor spaces and bars and restaurants only being able to serve people who are seated.
Gatherings have also been limited to 2,000 people indoors and 5,000 outdoors, and face masks must be worn in city centres.
In the second to last week of the year, the incidence rate of COVID-19 in France increased by 50%, Public Health France said, with the rate above 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in four regions.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 124,000 people have died in France from COVID-19.