Libertarian, far-right backed protests against government efforts to curb a wildfire fourth wave of covid are creating serious dilemmas for the left, writes Susan Ram
A fourth wave of covid-19, fuelled by the super-infectious Delta variant, is currently coursing through France at a speed unparalleled since the epidemic’s start.
According to the latest data, a 158 per cent rise in infections has taken place over the past week, with the Delta variant accounting for eight in ten new cases. In the 24-hour period July 21-22 nearly 22,000 new cases were recorded across the country. Restrictions that had earlier been lifted are now being re-imposed in areas which cross the threshold of 200 cases per 100,000 people. Departmental prefects (county government heads) have been empowered to compel the wearing of face masks, limit the hours of bars, restaurants and other businesses open to the public, and cancel events.
That this fourth tide of the virus is rolling in as families head for the beaches, mountains and campsites is compounding the challenge.
While something close to 39 million people in France have received at least one dose of anti-covid vaccine (30.8 million have received both doses), this figure represents roughly 60 per cent of those eligible, leaving millions more unprotected. Recent weeks have seen a slowdown in vaccination uptake. In a televised address on July 21, Jean Castex, the French prime minister, claimed that 96 per cent of new infections had been observed in unvaccinated people.
Tough new measures
In this context, the strategy of the Macron government is to boost the proportion of vaccinated adults in order to keep the economy open and prevent another lockdown. A stick and carrot approach in which the stick predominates is being applied to this end.
In a televised address on July 12, President Macron announced a package of measures aimed at boosting vaccination uptake. For all those working in the health and social care sectors, vaccination would be compulsory from September 15. For the population as a whole, a health pass (pass sanitaire) would be required for entry to a wide array of venues, from bars, restaurants and cinemas to hospitals, shopping malls and long-distance trains, from the start of August.
The health pass offers proof that an individual has been vaccinated against Covid-19, or has just had a negative coronavirus test, or has recently recovered from the virus.
To enforce the new rules, a system of penalties and fines will be set in place. . Health and social care workers who fail to get vaccinated by September 15 will be unable to report for work and will suffer loss of pay (the health minister, Olivier Véran, has hinted that further penalties, including sackings, will be applied 4-6 weeks after that).
Enforcement of the health pass will fall to venue organisers and business owners, who will be required to check clients’ documentation before allowing entry. In line with the Macron government’s penchant for draconian punishment, it was first announced that businesses would face 45,000 euro fines for failing to comply. The extremely angry response of restaurateurs and bar owners, many of them teetering on the edge after months of lockdown, has forced the government into a partial retreat: fines will now start below the level of 1,500 euros, rising progressively for repeat offenders, and will be phased in rather than imposed immediately.
There’s been a mixed reception for Macron’s new measures. On the one hand, they have prompted a sharp uptake in vaccinations and a scramble for appointments, which are now in short supply. Following Macron’s televised address on July 12, more than 1.7 million appointments were booked within 24 hours on a single website; on July 16, nearly 900,000 people received a shot in the space of one day, a record for France. French media reports suggest that more than 2.24 million appointments for jabs have been made in the aftermath of the government’s new action plan.
In contradiction with these signs of compliance readiness, tens of thousands of other citizens have been taking to the streets to express angry, full-throated opposition.
On Saturday July 17, an estimated 114,000 people across France took part in street protests against compulsory vaccination and the projected new health pass. While several thousands gathered in Paris, the turnout was 5,500 in Montpellier, 4,500 in Marseille, 2,800 in Strasbourg, 2,500 in Toulouse and Nantes, and 2,000 in Rennes.
Similar protests are planned for Saturday July 24, with mobilisations scheduled for a lengthening list of urban centres, big and small.
Why are people taking to the streets in such numbers?
While the libertarian thrust of the protests, with their emphasis on freedom in peril, points to similarities with demonstrations elsewhere (including anti-mask and anti-vax mobilisations in the UK), there are important differences. Sections of the left are associating themselves with this movement, as are some Yellow Vest activists and trade unionists. Their participation is taking place despite the high profile involvement of the far right, in particular leaders and supporters of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN: formerly the Front National). Heading the July 17 march in Paris were Florian Philippot, former leader of the RN, and Marion Maréchal Le Pen, Martine’s politically ambitious neo-fascist niece.
Those attending the Paris protests were by all accounts heterogeneous (chants of “Macron resign!” and “Liberte!” were accompanied by invocations of “Vaccine freedom is a right” and “Don’t touch our children”). But – to the shock of many across France – some protestors sought to liken Macron’s measures to the 1940 Nazi invasion of France and on from there to the Holocaust: stickers in the shape of yellow stars were circulated, while one placard proudly displayed the infamous gates of Auschwitz, topped by the slogan ‘Vaccin Macht Frei’.
Also disturbing has been the targeting of vaccination centres: during the weekend of 17-18 July, two such centres were so badly vandalised that they were put temporarily out of use. The mains electricity supply to one was cut for several hours, raising question marks over the viability of the 3,500 Pfizer vaccines stored there under ultra-low temperatures.
Back in January 2021, I analysed the factors that might be contributing to the then comparatively slow uptake of anti-covid inoculation in France. There was little doubt, I argued, that scepticism towards vaccines was an entrenched attitude among broad sections of people, although one subject to considerable variation according to age, sex, social background and political leanings: polls had revealed supporters of the far right as particularly hostile.
But aversion to vaccination also seemed to reach deep into the French left and working class. While problematic experiences in the past (for example, the tarnishing of a 2009 vaccination campaign against H1N1 influenza by scares surrounding a weight loss drug) might account for some of France’s vaccine ‘hesitancy’, the phenomenon also seemed to stem from something deeper. As I put it in the article:
…hostility towards mass vaccination programmes cannot be detached from French citizens’ profound mistrust of government: an edifice of wariness, suspicion and contempt built up over many years of failures, betrayals and increasingly authoritarian rule.
The Left’s response
The scale of the popular mistrust and hostility the Macron administration has succeeded in accumulating over its four years in office provides important context for the street protests currently unfolding in France. Whatever driblets of moral or inspirational capital the regime may once have had at its disposal have long been squandered. In such a situation, Macron and his lacklustre ministerial team can only resort to stick-wielding to get people into line.
This is where the French left could be said to carry a special responsibility.
Thus far, left leaders have been walking a tightrope on the health pass and the issue of mandatory vaccination. On July 16, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (LFI), the largest organisation of the radical left, came out against the compulsory vaccination of health and care workers, describing it as a “disproportionate” measure. He also expressed strong reservations about the health pass, arguing that it would bring about “a profound change in our way of life” by placing people under constant scrutiny (“ten times a day, if necessary”) and creating an “abnormal” situation which could result in a society subject to permanent, universal control.
At the same time, Mélenchon sounded the alarm about some of the claims and language in circulation at protests, singling out comparisons with apartheid South Africa or the Shoah as totally unacceptable.
Similar arguments against mandatory vaccination and the health pass are coming from other sections of the left. In a recently published statement, the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) called for urgent action against measures which, it said, would limit people’s access to specific services, threaten the livelihoods of unvaccinated workers, and further enlarge the government’s arsenal of antidemocratic weapons.
As I write, debates on these issues are in progress the length and breadth of France. While much passion attends these discussions (I listened to a particularly fervent exchange of views at my hairdresser’s the other day), and the air is infused with talk of ‘liberté’ and the need to defend it unto death, hundreds of thousands of people are overcoming previous doubts and hesitations to get themselves vaccinated.
The results of a poll conducted by Ipsos/Sopra Steria and published on July 16 suggest that a majority of people in France support, or are ready to tolerate, the government’s new measures. Of those polled, 69 per cent supported the mandatory vaccination of carers and health workers while 62 per cent were in favour of the health pass. Support was particularly marked among retirees, 81 per cent of whom welcomed the introduction of a health pass.
For the left, the question is how to strike a balance between the defence of liberty and the need to protect lives during an unprecedented, still evolving health emergency that has already claimed the lives of more than 120,000 French citizens. The need for a rational approach, rooted in science and cognisant of the third element of the great rallying call of the French Revolution – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – will become ever more pressing as Le Pen and company, their sights already set on next year’s presidential poll, seek to exploit the vaccination issue to the hilt.
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Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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