Frustrated French summer: Nation divided over ‘health passes’

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

PARIS — People are upset.  Many are frightened, and not surprisingly France is frustrated with the ever-changing Covid news and government rules which much like the weather reports keep changing personal, business and day-to-day plans.

Now for the fourth weekend in a row, anti-vaccine pass demonstrations rocked France from Paris to Lyon and Marseilles where over 230,000 citizens, many of them restaurateurs and cafe owners, took to the streets to protest mandatory “health passes.”

France like many of the other European countries has been dealt a deadly body blow by the COVID virus.

In Paris, restaurant staff have to check customers’ vaccine passports and cafés can be shut down if anyone unvaccinated is dining. / Christophe Petit / EPA

Though vaccination rates are low by American standards and a skepticism towards the vaccine are more openly pronounced than in the USA, it appears that widening opposition to health restrictions are rooted more in cumbersome government policies than vaccine jabs.  Now people are accepting the jab and the country is more than half-vaccinated.  But the new fault line has become the necessity to carry this electronic “health pass” which will allow or restrict access to everyday life.

Cinema box office sales have nosedived about 70 percent since the new health QR code pass was mandated.  The national daily Le Figaro warns, “The health pass has jolted Cultural Life.”

The Macron government’s ubiquitous “nanny state” policies and petty rules create a rising tide of resentment, especially among the middle classes and the small business community.

After seasons of lockdowns, curfews, restrictions on movement, people had hoped the summer season would prove the respite if not the liberation from rules and regulations.  But now with the rise of COVID’s feared Delta variant, masks are again mandatory, health passes are put on smartphones, and a maze of changing stopgap measures have smothered the sacrosanct summer holidays.

“Macron is treating people like children,” runs a popular refrain relating to the President’s near-imperious rules and mannerisms.   There’s no doubt that the health crisis is real and quite deadly, France has suffered 112,000 deaths from the pandemic.

The French parliament has moreover approved a law requiring the health passes which prove vaccination or a negative test for COVID.  Now there’s a pushback concerning movement and compulsory QR phone code regulations controlling access to festivals, cinemas, museums, etc.  Starting on August 9th, the health passes will be necessary for train travel as well as access into restaurants and cafes!  Clearly the government, in the name of health and safety, holds the keys to a massive restriction on individual movement.  Obey!

Though France has a long history of largely accepted Statism “Etatisme” where government edicts and bureaucrats are dutifully followed, the current anxiety comes from having followed the rules for 18 months now only to see the situation possibly slipping back to square one.

Warmer weather and long Summer evenings, have happily countered the gloom.  People congregate at restaurants, cafes and bars though not with the joie de vivre of even a few years ago.  Tourists are few but again it’s not as visibly dire as this writer was led to believe.  Paris is very much alive but with a subdued and somewhat restrained aura.

There’s a real problem looming with Presidential elections scheduled for the Spring. President Emmanuel Macron has faced a tempestuous tenure, all largely now defined by the Global pandemic, but shadowed earlier by the Gilet Jaunes “Yellow Vest” demonstrations which jolted France for nearly a year, exposing the deep fissures in society especially among a frustrated and rebellious middle class who is stressed by high taxes and fuel prices and draconian urban traffic rules.

This perfect storm of the Gilet Jaunes rocked France from late 2018 for over a year.

Demonstrations, infiltrated and often hijacked by hard leftwing agent provocateurs, turned often genuine grievances into a weekly frenzy of chaos, burned cars and smashed windows.

Now the new cause emerges as opposing the controversial health passes.  Many notable Gilet Jaune personalities are interwoven in the new movement.

Indeed, the Macron team has duly noted the violent demonstrations in Tunisia, a North African state with close ties to France, which saw its government toppled largely over vaccine ill-preparedness.

“The chaotic management of the virus has made the skepticism grow. This could finish with mandating obligatory jabs,” says Francois d’Orcival writing in the respected newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles. About a third of the French are against the new measures and two-thirds support them so naturally Macron is counting on the trusting majority to pull him through the current crisis.

Resistance is born of frustration but couched in resilience. The virus visibly divides France.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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