PARIS – At a time of the year when the French are traditionally divided between the “juillettistes” (who go on vacation in July) and the “augustiens” (who leave in August), the last few weeks have seen hundreds of thousands of people with a single rallying cry: “Freedom!
These demonstrators are united against the new French system of passes for vaccines, announced with great fanfare by the government on July 12 and which is gradually coming into force. The measures, intended to boost the vaccination rate as Delta variant classes across the country, make proof of vaccination – or a negative coronavirus test – mandatory to enter cultural venues, bars and restaurants. By September, all caregivers will need such a pass to keep their jobs, and workers with permanent contracts may be suspended without pay until they can provide one.
Although to some extent succeeded in its primary goal – in the weeks that followed, 6.5 million people were vaccinated, bringing the level to 47%, roughly the same proportion as in the United States – the decision rebounded badly against the government. Scores of people, unhappy with the act of coercion, take to the streets in a collective demonstration of defiance, potentially merging into a substantial protest movement that could hamper President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection efforts next year. As governments around the world contemplate similar policies, France’s experience is a caveat.
Organized on July 14, the first march against the “sanitary pass”, as it is called in France, brought together 18,000 people. In 10 days, that was up to 161,000 – rising to more than 204,000 during nearly 200 marches across the country on Saturday, according to police figures (often seen as underestimates). The protesters, labeled by the government as dogmatic anti-vaccine and conspiracy theorists, are in fact a motley crew. Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, describes them as “alone, as a couple, here with their family or friends, of all ages, whites, blacks, employees, retirees, some vaccinated, others who refuse to be vaccinated” . They are, in short, a mixed group.
Although vaccine skepticism is relatively high in France – 16% of residents do not intend to be vaccinated, according to a recent poll – as Mr Macron announced the imminent deployment of the vaccine by July 12, more than half of the French population, 36 million people, had received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Clearly, most French people are not morally opposed to being shot. Instead, their concerns are less about the vaccination itself and more about the freedoms and rights possibly infringed by the new measures.
After all, the social and economic implications are staggering. Will labor law in France need to be amended to include a vaccination requirement? Will it be legal to fire employees who do not comply? Can businesses, already affected by the pandemic, survive by instituting passes? (Theaters, which are already asking for health packages, have seen the number of customers drop by almost half.)
There are also darker concerns. Protesters fear the passes allow for large-scale state surveillance, potentially targeting the most vulnerable and even suppressing dissent. There is no guarantee, they warn, that the system will be removed once the virus is defeated. Ironically, the only profession exempt from compulsory vaccination – the police – will be the one that makes sure everyone obeys. Politics is ripe for authoritarian abuse.
There is no doubt that Mr Macron’s speech helped increase the number of vaccinations in France. After his intervention, online vaccine reservation portals collapsed due to high demand and 3.7 million vaccines were reserved the following week. But it comes at a price. Hoping for quick results in his usual top-down style of government and a show of force ahead of next year’s election, the president may have underestimated how close the French were to boiling point. Betting that the long-term benefits of the vaccination would outweigh the immediate backlash, he seems surprised to have stoked blind rage. His bet, always risky, may not pay off.
The government’s condescending response to the protests has not helped. In calling the protesters “crazy” last week, ministers conveniently forgot that the French’s growing distrust of the political class stems in large part from the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, especially in its early stages. In January 2020, for example, the French Minister of Health claimed that the risk of contagion for what was not yet named Covid-19 was “very low”. Perhaps this could be attributed to insufficient information. But in March, a month after French authorities realized they were facing a massive shortage of face masks, the government spokeswoman said the masks were “useless” against the virus. Confused and erratic messages were rife.
Add the fact that the health ministry, citing budgetary reasons, continued to reduce the country’s total number of hospital beds during the crisis, conflicting information shared by distraught ministers and arbitrary lockdown rules, and it no wonder people choose not to believe what the French state is telling them.
In a climate of doubt and suspicion, some are turning to conspiracy and anti-vaccine theories, armed by opportunist politicians like Florian Philippot, former leader of the National Rally of Marine Le Pen. The organizer of the recent marches in Paris, Mr. Philippot calls for a “phenomenal force»For August 5, the day when the Constitutional Council will examine the draft law on the vaccination passport. Although the protests are protean, their motivations varied, there is clearly a radicalized minority, vulnerable to populist persuasion.
The marches, with their fierce clashes with the press and shocking comparisons to the darkest hours of WWII, are far from an enlightened cry for emancipation. But it’s also hard to blame the protesters for reminding us that this should not be the case. With much needed public health funding, some coordination, a political vision and the honesty to recognize and learn from its mistakes, France could have led a strong and enlightened campaign for vaccination and kept anti political agitators at bay. -vaccines.
Instead, Mr Macron chose to infantilize the French – and they didn’t like it.