ON Monday, French president Emmanuel Macron crossed a Rubicon that weeks of public discussion and speculation had pre-empted.
He ordered compulsory anti-Covid vaccination for all workers caring for others, and an expansion of the digitised access system (the ‘health pass’) to allow only the vaccinated, or those who have a negative PCR test, to gain entry not just to bars, restaurants, theatres and long-distance public transport, but to shopping centres and hospitals.
Yes, that’s right, hospitals. Under the new legislation, the French will be legally unable to access emergency medical services if they cannot prove they are well enough to enter the premises.
Possessed by an unshakeable faith that there is a catastrophic ‘fourth wave’ of Covid building, employing the same suspect ‘exponential growth’ logic we have grown to love from our own prophets of doom, Macron and his right-hand man, health minister Olivier Véran, have made it clear: Get vaccinated, or we’ll have to lock you down again. It’s ‘your choice’.
According to the president, he is doing this to make sure the economy doesn’t have to be put in the deep freeze again, that businesses can stay open, and that people can, in fact, be ‘free’.
‘Freedom’ for the French will from now on be loosely defined as freedom to do what you think is best, as long as the state agrees, and if you disagree with the state, there will be consequences for your freedom – consequences the state will decide upon. New editions of the popular dictionary Le Petit Robert will need updating before too long to cope with all this.
Under normal circumstances (remember those?) we might just look down our lorgnettes at the mad French, and perhaps keep our eyes peeled for those yellow vests to reappear, or for the whole of the public sector to go on strike, ruining our plans to holiday in the Dordogne.
But there are worrying signs that these revolts are not coming. Nearly a million had rushed to book their vaccine appointment within hours of the announcements being made. The number is continuing to grow, if not exponentially, then extremely rapidly.
Proof of the power and success of the message and a sign of hope for turning the corner, the French government will doubtless be saying to itself. Or proof that coercion has become a key weapon in the armoury of power, others might suggest; proof also that you don’t necessarily need a shady ‘Nudge Unit’ working behind the scenes to orchestrate a campaign of fear that will terrorise people into compliance as required.
It is this that we should really be worried about. Not about an umpteenth wave of coronavirus inevitably washing up on our shores, but about the potential passivity of the feisty French, in the land of ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’, currently faced with an assault on bodily autonomy, legal equality, and freedom of movement that goes far beyond that which any ‘emergency powers’ have yet demanded.
It is one thing to fine people for leaving their homes. It is another to sack them for declining a medical treatment, or refuse them entry to a place of care, or to shops (Véran has not suggested refusing entry to supermarkets; at least, not yet).
Because, I have little doubt, that as throughout this last year and a bit, with the UK roughly playing seven-day catch-up with the French (France started its first lockdown on March 17, 2021, a week before ours, and its second on October 29, seven days before the UK closed its doors again, on November 5), that what they can ‘get away with’ in France, will soon become what Johnson, Gove, Javid and Sunak feel they can pull off on this side of the Channel.
This is why we have to keep a very close eye on how our Gallic rivals respond to this latest, astonishingly draconian, set of measures. We should start spreading images of any revolt there like we are already spreading pictures of normal life in Florida, Texas and elsewhere in the fast-shrinking ‘free world’.
One French commentator has called this is a ‘1789 moment’. Hard as it may be for some John Bulls to swallow, this time around we need to line up not on the side of Edmund Burke, but that of Robespierre, Marat and Danton.