Report

Macron’s Big Vaccination Gamble

The French president is making vaccines mandatory for many—sparking fresh protests ahead of next year’s elections.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
An anti-vaccination protester in France
A protester holds a placard reading "Health pass, first step to hell" during a demonstration against compulsory vaccination for certain workers and the mandatory use of the health pass in Paris, July 24. Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS—In one of the most vaccine-hesitant countries in the world, French President Emmanuel Macron is imposing sweeping vaccination requirements, making the anti-coronavirus shots virtually unavoidable for anyone wanting to live a normal social life.

Amid a dramatic surge in cases driven by the delta variant, last week the so-called health pass (proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test) became mandatory in France to enter cultural and leisure venues such as movie theaters and museums. After approval by Parliament and pending a green light from the Constitutional Council, similar requirements are due to be extended in early August to restaurants, bars, and long-distance public transportation. To further encourage people to get vaccinated, starting in the fall, PCR tests for the coronavirus will no longer be free of charge unless prescribed by a doctor. COVID-19 vaccinations will also become mandatory for all health care staff.

It’s about “participating in this collective effort to confront the virus head-on,” said Patrick Vignal, a member of Parliament from Macron’s En Marche! party. “We will find a way out of this crisis only if we all make an effort to bring down the tensions.”

PARIS—In one of the most vaccine-hesitant countries in the world, French President Emmanuel Macron is imposing sweeping vaccination requirements, making the anti-coronavirus shots virtually unavoidable for anyone wanting to live a normal social life.

Amid a dramatic surge in cases driven by the delta variant, last week the so-called health pass (proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test) became mandatory in France to enter cultural and leisure venues such as movie theaters and museums. After approval by Parliament and pending a green light from the Constitutional Council, similar requirements are due to be extended in early August to restaurants, bars, and long-distance public transportation. To further encourage people to get vaccinated, starting in the fall, PCR tests for the coronavirus will no longer be free of charge unless prescribed by a doctor. COVID-19 vaccinations will also become mandatory for all health care staff.

It’s about “participating in this collective effort to confront the virus head-on,” said Patrick Vignal, a member of Parliament from Macron’s En Marche! party. “We will find a way out of this crisis only if we all make an effort to bring down the tensions.”

The measures, announced by Macron in mid-July, are among the boldest in Europe—and could backfire spectacularly. They’ve already stirred up a major backlash ahead of elections next year. Opposition parties denounced what they call an authoritarian move, saying the government is depriving citizens of their freedom of choice without a meaningful debate in Parliament and within civil society. A protest movement appears to be picking up pace, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets across France over two consecutive weekends.

Despite the stamping feet, though, France appears to be beating a path to vaccination clinics. The new measures are already credited with boosting the vaccination campaign, which in previous weeks had lost steam; over the seven days following Macron’s speech, a record 3.7 million people booked their shots on the country’s main medical online platform. 

According to polls, around 60 percent of the French are in favor of the health pass—a remarkable level of support, given the nation’s history of rampant vaccine hesitancy. In a survey published in January, in the early days of the vaccination campaign, barely 40 percent of French respondents were willing to get vaccinated, compared to 69 percent in the United States. But months of vaccinations have created a “snowball effect,” said Lucie Guimier, an expert on vaccine skepticism at the French Institute of Geopolitics, with people growing less reluctant as the campaign progressed.

Selling the health pass to the French public should also get easier as more countries start enforcing similar rules. On the same day as Macron, the Greek government introduced vaccine requirements for venues such as bars, movie theaters, and theaters until the end of August. Last week, Italy followed suit with comparable steps, and Britain said it was planning to make proof of vaccination mandatory for nightclub-goers.

With the April 2022 presidential poll approaching fast, the row is inevitably dovetailing with an electoral campaign that is already heating up. Macron is widely expected to seek reelection and needs to avoid any major missteps; his most fearsome opponent will likely be far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party is among the most vocal critics of the new vaccination requirements. 

Macron seems keen to reinforce the narrative of a president with the courage to make tough calls. That is in line with his idea of “a strong executive that worries about France’s interests and doesn’t deal with petty politics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a progressive think tank. 

That gambit may play well next year. Bonapartism, the enduring French fascination with strong political figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte or Charles de Gaulle, has been noted by many observers over the decades and permeates the current constitution itself—whose framework, a rarity in Western Europe, revolves around powerful, directly elected presidents who don’t draw their legitimacy from Parliament.

And while Le Pen has tried to lead the opposition to Macron’s new measures, she finds herself in a delicate spot. After she spent a decade trying to “de-demonize” her party, the battle over the new requirements boxes the National Rally into the same camp as radical vaccine opponents whose views hardly mesh with the mainstream electorate. There are internal tensions, too. Rank-and-file National Rally members have taken part in street rallies, accused the government of imposing a “dictatorship,” and even compared themselves to the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Le Pen, who doesn’t deny the usefulness of the vaccines, has taken a more nuanced stance. She has only gone as far as denouncing an “attack on freedoms and equality,” without mentioning the word “dictatorship,” and has refrained from urging people to demonstrate.

Amid disappointing results in recent regional elections, “some on the National Rally’s lower echelons think that the party has veered too much towards the center,” Camus said. “But Marine Le Pen can’t ‘redemonize’ it, she can’t undo out of the blue what she has patiently been building since 2011.”

That leaves the leaders of smaller far-right movements, such as Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Florian Philippot, to outflank the National Rally from the right by spearheading the reaction against mandatory vaccinations. Freer to pander more explicitly to anti-vaccine voters, over the past several weeks they have been busy organizing rallies, using the issue to acquire more visibility and appeal to Le Pen’s most hard-line supporters.

The latest demonstrations bring back memories of the weekly, often violent “yellow vest” rallies against taxes and economic inequality that rocked Macron’s presidency a few years ago. At the peak of that crisis, between late 2018 and early 2019, Macron saw his approval ratings tank to barely 25 percent, before climbing back to the current 40 percent or so.

The yellow vests themselves, who despite dwindling numbers hardly ever stopped demonstrating over the past years, have added the latest requirements to the list of their grievances—some of which echo traditional battles of the left. At a gathering in Paris over the weekend, 43-year-old Najeh, who asked to be identified by first name only, said the health pass was just another of “the government’s oppressive measures” and the yellow vests would keep fighting for the withdrawal of the law as well as for “more social and fiscal equality.”

The biggest political danger for Macron is if opposition to mandatory vaccinations triggers a new wave of social unrest in the lead-up to next year’s election, Camus said. Last week, a police report warned that the movement against Macron’s COVID-19 policies could get more radical and violent as demonstrations drag on, just like the early yellow vests protests, with street clashes becoming once again a regular occurrence. While still a far cry from the levels of mobilization achieved in its heyday by the yellow vest movement, the protests against the new rules are growing bigger. On the first weekend following the president’s speech, over 110,000 people took to the streets across the country, according to the authorities; one week later, their number had risen to 160,000.

Their ranks run the gamut from radical anti-vaccine activists and wary health care professionals to restaurant industry workers doubting the health pass scheme’s feasibility, as well as right-wing and left-wing hard-liners who reject the imposition of the vaccine from the top, rather than the vaccine itself.

“We are not against vaccination, but we want it to be a free choice. It’s unacceptable to stop someone from entering a restaurant just because they haven’t been jabbed,” said Virginie, a middle-aged woman attending a rally called by the right-wing politician Florian Philippot in Paris’s Trocadéro area last Saturday, who asked to be identified by only her first name. “Macron will pay a political price for what he is doing.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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