Three weeks ago, 100,000 demonstrators turned out on the streets of France to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s hastily passed law to require vaccination passports to get on a train, eat at a restaurant or visit a shopping centre. A week later, the number had more than doubled. Last Saturday, it doubled again. One police union estimated that close to 500,000 had turned out, although as usual the Interior Ministry claimed a much lower number. Enormous demonstrations were staged not just in Paris but in more than 150 cities and towns across France, as well as in the overseas territories of Guadeloupe and Réunion.
All this in the middle of the sacred summer holiday season. On the current trajectory, one million could be on the streets by September. With eight months to go before the first round of the presidential election, Macron and his ministers have kindled a national revolt. It could be as prolonged and divisive as the revolt of the gilets jaunes, which only stopped in March last year after the first wave of Covid.
Ministers are still pouring petrol on the flames. This week, the health minister dismissed protestors as ‘a magma of anti-vax, anti-science and anti-state’ activists. With the connivance of a tame media, officials have painted protestors as dangerous, ultra right-wing extremists.
On Monday, a protestor who on Saturday was photographed carrying a sign denouncing, inter alia, Macron, Klaus Schwab, Bernard Henri-Lévy and George Soros was described as anti-Semitic by the interior minister, an allegation instantly and uncritically repeated by BFMTV, Macron’s ever-loyal news channel. By nightfall she was in a police cell.
Anyone outside of France can be forgiven for misreading the mood here. The deliberate demonisation of protestors is enthusiastically relayed by foreign journalists parroting the lines fed to them by Elysée flacks. The Sunday Times called protestors ‘far right and gilets jaunes’.
Yet as scores of videos available on social media show, these are not archetypal tinfoil hat-wearing anti-vaxxers, though a tiny handful might be. Indeed, many of them have been jabbed. (After a slow start, roughly 80 per cent of French people over 50 have had two jabs.) Nor are many wearing yellow gilets. They say they’re protesting ‘liberticide’ — the progressive elimination of freedom in the cause of fighting an epidemic that’s being exploited in the service of Macron’s re-election campaign. They’re objecting to compulsion and endless official intrusions into everyday life, and they quake at talk of a third, fourth or even annual or biannual vaccination against the endless mutation of variants.
The demonstrators are young and old. They include uniformed firefighters, families, teachers, Catholics, leftists, nationalists, nurses and restaurant owners. Many are pushing prams. They’re not black-clad anarchists or rustics. They’re overwhelmingly middle-class and peaceful. Many say it’s the first demonstration they’ve ever attended. They don’t like Macron, who they believe is dividing the French by pitting the young and the fed-up against the baby boomers, his natural constituents.
I’ve lived in France, on and off, for 20 years. I’m unable to recall such a petulant mood. Ten days ago, the newly appointed prefect of my department declared it compulsory to wear masks inside and outside. The edict is being totally ignored.
On Monday night in Paris, police raided restaurants and were issuing €135 fines to diners without Covid passes. At railway stations, officials are checking every traveller and issuing blue bracelets to authorise them to board trains. Hideous wire cages are being erected around some terraces to stop evasion of checks. Business at restaurants and cafés is duly collapsing. Naturally, the restaurants at the National Assembly and Senate are exempt from all of this.
Eighteen months ago, France turned into a republic of absurdities as it became illegal to leave the house without a signed declaration and supermarkets were forbidden to sell ‘non-essential’ socks. (For a time, the sale of face masks was restricted, then face masks became compulsory.) The country was subjected to a 7 p.m. curfew, earlier than the Germans imposed during the occupation.
Today, the dirigismes are becoming even more sinister and provocative. Hospitals are hiring hundreds of security guards to scan health passports before admitting visitors and even patients, even as many mutinous health care workers are threatened with the sack for refusing passports themselves. Police are checking cafés as real crime runs rampant. Masked officers have also been filmed interrogating restaurant-goers, telling customers to present their phones so that their health status can be inspected.
While today small businesses are threatened with fines of €45,000 and their owners with a year in prison for failing to check the vaccination status of their customers, the future looks even worse. Most provocative is the government’s plan to extend the vaccine passport to those over the age of 12 from the end of next month. And it’s been reported that some health officials wish to vaccinate those as young as five. It’s estimated that fewer than 20 children have died in France with Covid since March last year, and many of them had comorbidities.
Macron has no children, having married a woman 25 years his senior. It’s fair to suppose he has absolutely no idea how provocative his latest moves will prove. He apparently believes this authoritarianism, showing strength in the war on the virus, will get him re-elected. It might. Political opposition to the President remains fractured and weak. Few mainstream politicians have put their heads above the parapet to support the demonstrators.
In a July vote passing the passport law, Macron’s majority three times rejected amendments to exclude the possibility that a passe sanitaire would be required to vote in France. Surely such a measure would be impossible? Perhaps, but it’s an indication of the mood here that many don’t think so, especially after the constitutional council of superannuated politicians waived through the vaccine passports with nary a murmur.
It’s a little remarked feature of the President’s crackdown that the one group he will depend on to enforce his new law has been specifically excluded from complying with it. The police, whose armouries have been freshly replenished with tear gas and rubber bullets, are exempt. Demonstrations so far have been peaceful. A month from now that may no longer be true.