Liberté, égalité – and Covid

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 27 July 2021

Countries have political rallies, of course. But when they take place in France, with its revolutionary history, they always appear more passionate.

Especially when these rallies happen in July, at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, and with crowds shouting “Liberté! Liberté!”

No, this was not quite the next French revolution on Saturday. Not just in Paris, by the way, but in cities like Toulouse, Lyon, Strasbourg, Lille, Nizza, Montpellier and Marseille as well. Altogether some 160,000 people took to the streets of France.

The reason behind their protests was the French government’s plans for the pass sanitaire, a health passport. Introduced in early June this year, the document records the Covid status of residents: whether they are vaccinated, tested negative or recently recovered from Covid.

As the French government explains, the health pass is part of their plan to reopen the country. Its use will allow the resumption of activities that could otherwise present a danger to spread the epidemic.

While hardly anyone would object to reopening, the way the pass is used created scenes of political unrest over the past weekend.

From Wednesday last week, France required a health pass to access any gatherings of 50 people or more, whether they are for leisure or culture. Thus theatres, amusement parks, concert halls, festivals, sports halls and cinemas were compelled to ask for the pass.

But that was just the first step. From the beginning of August, the pass will also be compulsory in cafes, restaurants, shopping centres, GP practices, hospitals, retirement homes, and travel by plane, train and bus for long-distance journeys.

However, even that will not be the end of the requirements. The four million people working in the French healthcare system will have to receive the vaccination if they do not want to lose their jobs. They have until September 15 to get their jabs.

Among all developed countries, France is probably the one that goes furthest with a vaccination requirement for health workers. Where other countries rely on moral appeals and soft pressure on their health workforces, France is using compulsion to distribute vaccines among critical workers.

Such strong measures are still popular In France. A poll conducted by the Elabe polling institute for the BFM TV channel on July 13 showed 76 percent support for the compulsory vaccination for caregivers. A majority of 58 percent favour using the health pass in cafes, restaurants and shopping centres.

Still, a vocal minority regard all such health measures with suspicion. And to a degree, that may even be justified given the hasty introduction of the new Covid requirements. It was an introduction so hurried it needed to be corrected almost immediately.

For example, shopping centres were initially supposed to check on the Covid status of their customers. That was soon changed to only larger shopping centres – and only where alternatives existed for non-vaccinated and non-tested customers.

Similarly, a fine of Euro 45,000 on cafés restaurant owners and shopkeepers who do not check their customers’ passports was quickly reduced to just Euro 1,500 just as a provision was added so people could receive medical treatment in an emergency without a certificate.

For the past year and a half, France has had to deal with three lockdowns and many restrictions on everyday life. And while the French took these restrictions with high compliance, it is the path back to everyday life that seems even harder.

Perhaps the problem with France’s Covid measures was not the measures themselves. It was rather a matter of clarity around their stated objectives. The lack of practicability of some requirements did not help either.

For French President Emmanuel Macron and his government, the goal may be to guide the country back to some normality. For some of France’s citizens, normality is difficult to perceive when they need to produce their health pass and some photo identification to grab a takeaway coffee on their way to work.

The French government experience is just what the New South Wales and Victoria state governments had to go through last weekend. For any anti-Covid measure, it is not just sufficient for that measure to make sense. It is also vital for the public to go along.

Last weekend, about 99 percent of Sydneysiders and Melburnians stayed at home and complied with the new lockdown. But the remainder at their violent and unmasked protests had the potential not just to derail their state governments’ Covid policies but also to create super-spreader events to prolong their cities’ misery.

The French government, especially President Macron, has had every incentive to lead France out of its Covid state. In April 2022, France will go to the polls to confirm Macron as President or elect a successor. The President needs to have left the Covid emergency behind him by then – or at least appear to be a good manager of the crisis.

At the same time, the President’s most violent opponents have the potential to thwart his ambitions. They may have already been opposed to his economic policies like the ‘gilets jaunes’ (the ‘yellow vests’) who protested against the President a couple of years ago. Macron’s perceived ‘Covid dictatorship’ gives these old opponents a new lease of life – and makes it harder for the President to manage the exit from the pandemic.

The French protests against Macron, his Covid management and the health pass are colourful and emotional. Whether they change much in the dynamic towards next year’s presidential elections remains to be seen.

While France always displays its discontent in the streets, it does not always take it to the polls. In this year’s regional elections, only about a third of voters turned out.

And if that happens again next April, Macron may be re-elected – despite the semblance of almost revolutionary discontent.

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