Macron tells critics: vaccine passport will protect all our freedoms
When the Great Plague struck Marseille in 1720, killing more than half of the city’s population, travellers were ordered to carry a “bill of health” and ships arriving at the Mediterranean port underwent a 40-day cordon sanitaire or quarantine. As a gateway for trade, the city authorities struggled to find a delicate balance between halting the spread of the disease and damaging vital commerce.
Three hundred years on, President Emmanuel Macron is walking an equally tricky tightrope just eight months before he seeks re-election in April 2022. And unlike the ancient Marseillais, Macron has to answer to social media.
On Monday, France’s contested pass sanitaire will be extended with the aim of coercing the final tranche of hardline vaccine sceptics to get inoculated, prompting protests across the country for the fourth consecutive weekend. Last week, more than 200,000 people turned out to demonstrate, according to figures from the interior ministry.
The protests have united the far left and far right and many in between. While there has been little opposition to the imposition of face masks, opponents fervently believe the pass sanitaire violates the most fundamental of French principles: the liberté and egalité of the national motto. They were joined in Paris yesterday by Gilets Jaunes and a motley crew of anarchists, conspiracy theorists and those who would compare the French president to Adolf Hitler and his centrist government to Nazis.
The protesters had pinned their hopes on the constitutional council – a nine-member body appointed by the president and the leaders of both houses of parliament to look at new legislation – stifling any extension of the pass. They were to be disappointed. On Thursday, council members, known as “the sages”, upheld the constitutional legality of almost all the proposed new measures.
Afterwards, Julien Odoul, a young rising star of the far-right Rassemblement National, said: “The constitutional council has approved a two-tier society where there are two categories of citizens who don’t have the same rights, depending on their vaccine status. This is Macron’s society and one that we condemn and reject. The principles of liberty and egality are sacred.”
Hard left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a presidential candidate, agreed, describing the health pass as “absurd, unfair and authoritarian”.
What shocks me is the lack of rigour, logic and scientific basis to a lot of the arguments
Macron urged his compatriots to remember the third element of the motto, fraternité, calling on them to “accept these collective rules … and get vaccinated”.
“It’s about citizenship. Freedom only exists if the freedom of everyone is protected… it’s worth nothing if by exercising our freedom we contaminate our brother, neighbour, friend, parents, or someone we have come across at an event. Then freedom becomes irresponsibility.”
The pass sanitaire, passed by French MPs last month and due to last until 30 September, already required those going to cinemas, theatres, museums or attending larger public events to prove they are either fully vaccinated, have a negative Covid test or proof that they have had and recovered from the coronavirus.
From 9 August this will be extended. Anyone wishing to dine in a restaurant or drink in a bar, even on an outside terrace, will need the pass as will passengers travelling long distance by train or bus or visiting nursing homes and hospitals, except in a medical emergency.
From 30 August, all those whose job brings them into contact with the public must have the pass or face being suspended from their jobs without pay.
Nobody is being forced to be vaccinated – apart from health and nursing home staff from next month – the government insists, but they are certainly being coerced.
It does not take much to send the French on to the streets – often leading to hyberbolic observations from outside the country that France is on the cusp of another bloody revolution. That said, protests in August, when many are on holiday, are unusual.
Sociologist Jean Viard warned the protests were “a mixture that could be explosive”. “The boundaries are difficult to pin down,” he told French television.
Physicist and researcher François Arleo was surprised at how polarised the responses were when he wrote a comment piece in the left-leaning Libération addressed to a vaccine-hesitant friend, urging him to get inoculated. “Think Pasteur and not Darwin,” Arleo urged.
“The responses have been very divisive and quite depressing,” he told the Observer. “What shocks me is the lack of rigour, logic and scientific basis to a lot of the arguments. I don’t want to be giving lessons but some of these educated people should know better. It’s not very rational.”
As with many protest movements in France, however, there is a paradox. Macron’s coercion appears to be working. Since the president announced the pass sanitaire at least 7 million French people have been given their first vaccine dose. Currently, 63.5% of the over-12 population has been fully vaccinated and reservations on the central booking system suggest France will have vaccinated 50 million people over the age of 12 with at least one jab by the end of this month.
Polls also suggest 60-70% of French support the health pass though half of those questioned said they understood the protesters.
At Saturday’s demonstrations, some protesters were anxious point out they were not in principle opposed to vaccines, but being forced to have them.
“This is a question of personal choice,” said Thibault, marching in Paris on Saturday. “Is it a risk? Life is a risk.” Another group marched with a woman dressed as Marianne – female symbol of the republic – in chains.
Arleo admitted his appeal had failed to convince his vaccine-reluctant friend.
“No, unfortunately he hasn’t changed his mind. He says he’ll probably end up having the jab because otherwise life will become too complicated. But he’s not happy about it.”