Macron makes headlines with crude advice to protesting workers

Entire opposition accuses French president of ‘class contempt’ over latest gaffe

Emmanuel Macron: Negative reaction over latest remark has snowballed into endless denunciations and front-page headlines. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron: Negative reaction over latest remark has snowballed into endless denunciations and front-page headlines. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

 

In President Emmanuel Macron’s France, as in Donald Trump’s America, it is often a few casually spoken, infelicitous words, rather than substance, that make headlines. On a trip to Corrèze on Wednesday, Macron said that protesting workers should look for jobs instead of causing chaos. But the colloquial phrase he used, foutre le bordel, translates literally as “making a f***ing bordello’.

Negative reaction snowballed into endless denunciations and front-page headlines. Libération published a two-page comparison of Macron with the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was known for using crude language.  

Macron is a young man who talks like a senior citizen. No wonder he’s most popular with voters over the age of 50. His gaffe reminded Laurent Joffrin, the director of Libération, of “the cliches one used to hear in bourgeois drawing rooms”.

What would Macron say next, Joffrin wondered. He suggested possible follow-ups, including: “People just don’t want to work any more”; “The problem with workers is you give them an inch and they take a mile”; or “They spend their pay cheque on drink instead of feeding their families”. The working class, Joffrin wrote, were inevitably the butt of Macron’s criticism; never the rich and powerful.  

A radio commentator contrasted the smooth, cultivated tone of Macron’s recent speech on Europe at the Sorbonne with his offhandedness towards workers. The entire opposition – the far-left France Unbowed, the Socialists, conservative Les Républicains and far-right Front National – accused Macron of “class contempt”. Earlier remarks about “illiterate” factory workers and “lazy” people compounded the damage. (The Élysée claimed that “lazy” referred to Macron’s predecessors, not opponents of his labour reforms.)

Back in spin mode

The Élysée is in spin mode again, explaining that the president did not know he was being recorded and that his remark was taken out of context. Macron was visiting a school for apprentices. The Socialist president of the region was saying how hard it was to fill positions at a nearby foundry. At the same time, workers from the GM&S auto-parts company were demonstrating outside, demanding to see Macron. The firm’s new owners are firing 157 of 277 employees.

“Some people instead of making a f***ing bordello would do better to find out if they can’t get jobs over there, beause some of them are qualified,” Macron said.

Although some commentators agreed with the gist of Macron’s remark, they faulted him for using obscene language. The phrase foutre le bordel includes not one but two unpleasant words.

“Objectively, it’s true,” wrote Nicolas Beytout of L’Opinion. “If there are job offers just a few kilometres away, the striker-demonstrators of GM&S should apply, instead of confronting riot police.” Beytout paraphrased the title of the book that sank François Hollande’s presidency: “But a president shouldn’t say it like that.

‘Careless language’

“Yet again Macron’s careless language and obsessive media who inflate the slightest note of scandal ensured that substance was sacrificed to form. The real issue is not the president’s language, but the possibility of reducing unemployment in France.’’

A few minutes later, Macron addressed the plight of the GM&S employees, saying “there are situations where we cannot protect all jobs. We fought to save as many as possible, but it’s bad policy to protect all jobs, including those which no longer have an economic future.”

The message Macron meant to convey in Corrèze was that the next phase of his reforms is intended to create “excellence” through apprenticeships and professional training. These will be paired with the reform of France’s extremely generous unemployment benefits system. Negotiations will begin at the Élysée next Thursday, October 12th. It’s a controversial subject, likely to prompt a few swear words.

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