Amid a dramatic increase in cases caused by the delta variant, last week the so-called health pass (proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test) became mandatory in France to enter the cultural and leisure places such as cinemas and museums. After parliamentary approval and pending the green light from the Constitutional Council, similar requirements should be extended in early August to restaurants, bars and long-distance public transport. To further encourage people to get vaccinated, starting in the fall, PCR tests for the coronavirus will no longer be free unless prescribed by a doctor. COVID-19 vaccinations will also become mandatory for all health workers.
It is about “participating in this collective effort to face the virus head-on”, declared Patrick Vignal, deputy of En Marche! Party. “We will only find a way out of this crisis if we all work to reduce tensions. “
The measures, announced by Macron in mid-July, are among the most daring in Europe and could backfire dramatically. They have already provoked a backlash ahead of next year’s elections. Opposition parties have denounced what they call an authoritarian move, claiming that the government is depriving citizens of their freedom of choice without meaningful debate in parliament and within civil society. A protest movement appears to be gathering pace, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets across France for two weekends in a row.
Despite the trampling, France seems to be making its way to vaccination clinics. The new measures are already credited with relaunching the vaccination campaign, which in previous weeks had lost momentum; in the seven days following Macron’s speech, a record 3,7 millions people booked their shots on the country’s leading online medical platform.
According to surveys, approximately 60 percent of French people are in favor of the health pass, a remarkable level of support, given the country’s history of widespread reluctance to vaccines. In one investigation published in January, in the first days of the vaccination campaign, barely 40% of French people surveyed were ready to be vaccinated, compared to 69% in the United States. But months of vaccinations created a “snowball effect,” said Lucie Guimier, an expert on vaccine skepticism at the French Institute of Geopolitics, with people becoming less reluctant as the campaign was progressing.
Selling the health pass to the French public should also become easier as more countries start to apply similar rules. On the same day as Macron, the Greek government introduced vaccine requirements for places such as bars, cinemas and theaters until the end of August. Italy last week followed suit with comparable measures, and Britain said it plans to make proof of vaccination mandatory for club goers.
As the April 2022 presidential election approaches, the dispute inevitably merges with an already heated election campaign. Macron should get re-elected and must avoid any major missteps; his most formidable opponent will likely be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party is among the most vocal critics of the new vaccination requirements.
Macron appears to want to bolster a president’s narrative with the courage to make tough appeals. This corresponds to his idea of ”a strong executive who cares about the interests of France and does not deal with petty politics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, political scientist at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a progressive think tank. .
This bet could play out well next year. Bonapartism, the lingering fascination of the French for strong political figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte or Charles de Gaulle, has been noted by many observers over the decades and permeates the current constitution itself, whose framework, a rarity in Western Europe, revolves around powerful and directly elected presidents. who do not derive their legitimacy from Parliament.
And while Le Pen has tried to lead opposition to Macron’s new measures, she finds herself in a delicate position. After spending a decade trying to “demonize” his party, the battle over the new demands puts the National Rally on the same side as radical vaccine opponents whose views barely match the mainstream electorate. There are also internal tensions. Members of the base of the National Rally took part in street rallies, accused the government of imposing a “dictatorship” and even compared to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII. Le Pen, who does not deny the usefulness of vaccines, took a more nuanced position. She went so far as to denounce an “attack on freedoms and equality” without mentioning the word “dictatorship”, and refrained from urging people to demonstrate.
Amid the disappointing results of the recent regional elections, “some in the lower echelons of the National Rally believe the party has turned too much to the center,” Camus said. “But Marine Le Pen cannot ‘re-demonize’ him, she cannot suddenly undo what she has patiently built since 2011.”
This leaves the leaders of small far-right movements, such as Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Florian Philippot, to overwhelm the National Rally through the right-wing spearheading the reaction against compulsory vaccinations. Freer to flatter more explicitly anti-vaccine voters, they have been busy organizing rallies for several weeks, taking advantage of the issue to gain more visibility and seduce Le Pen’s most intransigent supporters.
The latest demonstrations are reminiscent of the often violent weekly rallies of “yellow vests” against taxes and economic inequalities that rocked the Macron presidency a few years ago. At the height of this crisis, between late 2018 and early 2019, Macron saw his approval ratings reservoir to just 25 percent, before rising to around 40 percent today.
The yellow vests themselves, who despite the decrease in numbers have hardly ever stopped demonstrating in recent years, have added the latest demands to the list of their grievances, some of which echo the traditional battles of the left. At a rally in Paris this weekend, Najeh, 43, who asked to be identified by his first name only, said the health pass was just another of “government oppressive measures” and that the yellow vests would continue to fight for the withdrawal of the law as well as for “more social and fiscal equality”.
The biggest political danger for Macron is that opposition to mandatory vaccinations will spark a new wave of social unrest as next year’s elections approach, Camus said. Last week, a police report warned that Macron’s movement against COVID-19 policies could become more radical and violent as protests drag on, as do early yellow vest protests, with street clashes reverting to a regular occurrence. While we are still far from the levels of mobilization reached at its peak by the yellow vests movement, protests against the new rules are intensifying. The first weekend after the president’s speech, more than 110,000 people took to the streets across the country, officials said; a week later, their number had risen to 160,000.
Their ranks range from radical anti-vaccine activists and suspicious medical professionals to restaurant industry workers who doubt the feasibility of the health card program, as well as right-wing and left-wing extremists who reject the imposition of the vaccine from above. , rather than the vaccine itself.
“We are not against vaccination, but we want it to be a free choice. It is unacceptable to prevent someone from entering a restaurant just because they haven’t been loaded, ”said Virginie, a middle-aged woman attending a rally called by the right-wing politician. Florian Philippot in the Trocadéro district in Paris last Saturday, who asked to be identified only by his first name. “Macron will pay a political price for what he does. “