“The unvaccinated?” Emmanuel Macron told the leading French daily Le Parisien on Tuesday, “j’ai très envie de les emmerder – I really want to piss them off [strictly, shit on them] … and that is what we will continue to do, all the way to the end. That’s the strategy.” 

Well, merde alors! Who did he think he was? Boris Johnson? 

As he must surely have known, by using such unpresidential language, Macron was raising the stakes to a dangerous level. He was telling a significant chunk of the French people, and their political backers, that he despised their position on Covid and was ready to take them on no matter the consequences. 

It was his Buzz Lightyear moment. “Okay! Come on! You want a piece of me! Well, here I am.” 

Within minutes, Macron’s opponents were all over him like bees protecting their hive from a hungry bear. But was he crazy to say what he did? Well, maybe crazy like a fox.  More of a calculated risk than an all-or-nothing throw of the dice. 

Because here’s the problem. You have been President of France for the best part of five years. You have, after dealing with the pandemic, the gilets-jaunes, the unions and the public’s revulsion in the face of islamist extremism, a breadth and depth of experience in the role that none of your rivals can match. And you are still only 44, the youngest head of state in the history of the Republic. They may not always like you, but who else could they turn to in times of crisis? 

And then along comes Valérie Pécresse, the surprise candidate for the centre-right Républicains. Not only is she intellectually accomplished – like you, she is an Énarque (a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration) – but she speaks better English, as well as Russian and Japanese, and as head of the regional council of the Île de France, probably knows Paris better than you do. Not only that (curses!), she is good-looking, stylish and, if elected, would be the first-ever woman to hold the keys to the Élysée Palace – an evolutionary development that many feel has been delayed for far too long. 

For Emmanuel Macron, used to being the “new face” in French politics ever since he was sworn into office at the age of 39, life is suddenly all about survival. He had expected to wipe the floor with his conservative challenger, whether the smooth-talking Michel Barnier, the chippy Xavier Bertrand or the permanently cross Éric Ciotti. Instead, he got someone dismissed by her opponents as Macron in a skirt or, as she herself would have it, two-thirds Angela Merkel, one-third Margaret Thatcher. 

It is his nightmare scenario. Not only is he going up against himself in drag, he is also in competition with two of the foremost political giants in European politics of the last hundred years. 

What to do? What to do? 

And then it comes to him. Emmerder: heap ordure on their stupid heads. Give the extremists a point of attack that Pécresse – a moderate at heart who could well have served as Macron’s finance or foreign minister – feels obliged to share, so that the divide is not between him and the conservatives, but him and the rest.

And then vote for reason.

For what is the issue that most concerns French voters at the present time? Covid. Always Covid. And what is the issue that most separates moderate, informed voters from the rabble that supports the Populists of the Far Right? Vaccination. 

More than three quarters of the French, including millions who aren’t happy about it, have taken the decision to be vaccinated. And having stood in line two, even three, times to protect themselves, their loved ones and everyone else, they resent the fact that the refuskniks are draping themselves in the tricolore as the only true upholders of that most lofty, and ignored, of mottos, liberté, égalité, fraternité

The line between the two camps does not go down the middle. Whereas in 2019, when Covid first took hold, as much as half the electorate might have been considered anti-vax, or at any rate vaccine-sceptic, today, only about one in five still gives vaccines the cold shoulder. And nearly all the hardliners are on the right. 

Marine Le Pen, who heads what might be called the traditional, or “established” far right, takes the majority view. Though she “detests the needle,” she believes that if enough people are vaccinated, herd immunity will develop naturally. But, as both a contrarian and a libertarian, she regards anti-vaxers as freedom’s defenders. If pushed,  she will defend to the death (their death) their right to do as they please. At the same time, her rival for the populist crown, Éric Zemmour ­– Dominic Cummings to her Boris Johnson – though also jabbed up to his somewhat prominent eyeballs, has cast himself as Liberty Leading the People. 

They came out swinging almost as soon as the words were out of Macron’s mouth and there has been no let-up since. Macron was a tyrant who held the French people in contempt. He had failed as President and now wished to pin the blame on those who had been forced to endure his five wasted years in power. 

Pécresse wasn’t slow to get in on the act. “I was outraged by the words used by the President of the Republic. Insult is never the right solution. What we have to do is put an end to his five-year term, marked by contempt, and I want to be the one to do it.” 

Well, quite. But does she secretly share Macron’s reading of the runes, or does she, in spite of herself, belong with the rabble? And how would that play out in the first round of the presidentials?   

This is where the calculation comes in. Macron is betting that, even if they feel he went a little too far, a majority of voters will be behind him as he seeks to isolate and pressure the anti-vaxers into getting the jab. The Right, in this analysis, will be the ones standing in the way of Getting Covid Done, while he and his En Marche party – “neither left nor right” – concentrate on saving lives and rebuilding the economy. 

Will it work? Who knows? Elections these days are more than ever a gamble. But at least the President has put some rose-coloured water between himself and those – les emmerdés – preparing a tumbril for his departure.