IN THE early hours of Monday, and with fewer than half of MPs present in the Chamber of Deputies, France’s parliament voted into law some of the most draconian legislation since the Second World War Vichy régime, which will shortly see unvaccinated citizens run out of restaurants, chased out of cafés and barred from bars. They will no longer be allowed on long-distance public transport and, as I reported two weeks ago, Farewell, Liberté | The Conservative Woman will not be permitted to enter hospitals either as visitors or patients (an exemption was eventually made for ‘emergency admissions’). Health workers have until mid-September to get the vaccine or face dismissal.
The list of venues in France where a ‘health pass’ will be demanded is already extensive, broadly covering all leisure from sports centres to cinemas, and even weddings on public property (all must take place in the town hall to be legally recognised). Amendments from MPs to limit the scope of the pass – including one to rule out extending it to polling stations – were rejected, meaning that any ‘public place’ could, as deemed necessary, become subject to restrictions (and if it’s already going to happen in hospitals then who knows what will be next?)
Encouragingly, popular resistance to the new measures is growing. Anecdotally, many bars and restaurants are refusing to check health passes. A railworkers’ union has told its members not to check passengers’ health passes and has promised to strike if any of its members are sacked for not having one themselves. A Lyons hospital is going on indefinite strike from Thursday to protest against the pass, and the compulsory-vaccination-in-all-but-name of its staff.
An official estimate (on the low side) put demonstrator numbers on Saturday July 24 at 161,000 nationwide, about 50 per cent more than the previous Saturday, and marches are being planned for this Saturday and in the interim. Despite the measures being introduced when traditionally at least half of the country is on holiday (in other words, a good time to bring in a bad law), more than a third of French people polled said they supported last weekend’s protests.
The government is clearly feeling the pressure. Olivier Véran, the Health Minister, unfeelingly dismissed a social media video of a nurse in tears because she would have to leave her job if forced to take a vaccination as ‘unrepresentative of the profession’. President Macron, visiting French Polynesia at the weekend, waded into the debate, flanked by dozens of masked hospital workers, and gruffly asserted that there was ‘no such thing as freedom without duty’. ‘If you infect me, I’m the victim of your freedom,’ he claimed, while dismissing protesters as ‘selfish’ and ‘irrational’.
Worryingly, if not untypically, the main opposition is trying to take the government in an equally authoritarian direction. The president of the Paris region and potential presidential candidate, Valerie Pécresse, is one of many arguing that the way around a divisive health pass is to make the vaccination obligatory for everyone. That she cannot see that this is the de facto goal of the health pass, and the outcome of her own proposal would also be social division, simply reflects the poverty of mainstream political leadership in the country.
Thankfully, France has a vigorous tradition of popular protest which now and again turns insurrectionary. Macron’s state troopers had to deal with months and months of Yellow Vest protests throughout 2019, which it used military-grade weaponry to put down, ultimately exhausting the movement physically. But though that patriotic, democratic rebellion has been through the wringer, it’s not quite ready to be hung out to dry, and popped up to co-ordinate marches on Saturday in Paris and in dozens of towns up and down the country. Meanwhile, Frexiteer Florian Philippot (who advocates France leaving the EU) had his own, substantial Paris rally, and the Left-wing, selective defender of civil rights, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has lent support to the anti-vaccine passport cause from within and without Parliament, meaning the government is getting hit from all sides.
Unity between these diverse groups may be a pipe dream, but the shared determination to stand up for individual freedom could end up a powerful motivating force towards overcoming division, as it was during the years of the French Resistance. For now, may each dissenter find the protest that suits him best and aux armes, citoyens!