IN A survey published at the weekend by the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, an astonishing 43 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement ‘France is becoming a dictatorship’, and half thought that ‘the measures being taken by the government [introducing vaccine passports and mandating vaccinations] are dangerous’. In fact, to most of the paper’s questions regarding the degree to which the government of President Macron has got the balance right between coercion and individual choice, the split was almost exactly 50-50. This figure appears more accurately to reflect the polarisation of the country than the government’s boasting about the numerical superiority of its attempts to strong-arm people into getting vaccinated.
In June, an unprecedented two-thirds of the French electorate didn’t bother turning up to vote in the regional elections, seeing a shocking collapse in the vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and a humiliating average of just 7 per cent support for Macron’s Republic On the Move. Yet, for the last five weekends, almost a quarter of a million protesters (by police estimates, nearly double that according to semi-independent observers Le Nombre Jaune) have found their way on to the streets of Paris and hundreds of towns the length and breadth of the country, declaiming ‘Freedom!’ and ‘Non!’ to Macron and his ‘Shame Pass’, the social media nickname for the vaccine passport now required in most indoor venues. Those numbers are equally unprecedented for the months of July and August, when most cities are empty of locals, all off on summer holidays.
While we may well be tempted to look at France with its long history of (often violent) social conflict, and give a Gallic shrug at the divisions the surveys are suggesting, this would miss something extraordinarily important about what is happening. While past protests have often taken off around legitimate economic concerns, through a clumsy mixture of police repression and small financial concessions or delaying tactics, they have eventually been bought and beaten off. These new protests are bringing in a far broader range of discontented people, many of them first-time demonstrators, not around questions of money, but of morality.
As one of the veteran Gilet Jaune protesters on the march on Saturday told an observer: ‘This protest is more high heels than yellow vests.’ French tricolours filled the roads and town squares, with people wearing blue, white and red eye-shadow and face-paint, while the EU flag so favoured as a backdrop in the President’s TV addresses was noticeably absent, except when one was being burned. This isn’t a scrap about economics. This is about fundamental values that are supposed to unite a nation. Ordinary people will go to extraordinary lengths and make extraordinary sacrifices when called to defend the values that really matter to them.
We all know the French revolutionary motto ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’. Increasingly, Macron is seen as embodying none of these values. He is dragging the country towards what protesters have begun to call an ‘apartheid’ state, the unvaccinated unequal to the vaccinated. He is fomenting the dissolution of notions of brotherhood, of mutual assistance and solidarity, by forcing healthworkers and firefighters to get vaccinated or be sacked. Crucially for most, he has taken a battering ram to the idea of liberty, with police seen checking passes last week outside cafés in a way wholly reminiscent of Nazi-occupied Paris during the 1940s.
Businesses called upon by the government to enforce the internal passport system are being boycotted and, sadly, a number of their owners and staff being physically threatened and called ‘collabos’, the word used to describe those who worked with the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. It is turning into an unmitigated disaster, as many places report 70 per cent drops in their customer numbers. Pop-up bars have appeared in public squares as people refusing to participate in the pass system gather together, bringing their own booze, food and entertainment. One such picnic in central Paris received a visit from dozens of police in full body armour to move the revellers on.
In March 2020, Macron took to the nation’s TV screens and proclaimed over and over: ‘We are at war.’ Soon enough, the trappings of armed conflict with its share of curfews, business closures and identity checks became part of the daily French routine. Of course, at the time, he meant that France was at war with coronavirus. As time has gone on and recalcitrant citizens have borne the brunt of extraordinary four-figure fines, it has felt to the locals more like a war on them and their livelihoods. Now it appears to have become a war on the foundational values of the French nation.
It’s beginning to feel more like a civil war between the angry vaccinated and the equally angry unvaccinated. Fifteen vaccination centres have been vandalised by protesters, with one burnt to the ground in Martinique. So far, the only shots fired so far have been into more or less willing arms. But as Macron holds the Sword of Damocles above citizens’ heads, threatening them with lockdown if they don’t comply with his order to get vaccinated, the shrill voices calling for full, mandatory vaccination for the whole population are rising across the political divide. The next, compulsory, shots may well be considered by the resistant sizeable minority to be overtly hostile; at which point, don’t be surprised to see the barricades making their stormy comeback.