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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

France, Brussels brace for ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests

Europe is seeing the start of its own “Freedom Convoy” protests as motorists converge on Paris before planning to move onto Brussels, the seat of the EU. Police in both cities are warning they will arrest anyone who tries to block traffic.

(CN) — Paris and Brussels are bracing for large protests against Covid-19 restrictions inspired by Canadian truckers who've paralyzed Ottawa and caused officials there to issue a state of emergency.

Hundreds of motorists converged on Paris Friday afternoon and night and vowed to carry out protests over the weekend despite the threat of harsh punishments for violating a ban on road blockades announced a day earlier by Paris police.

The so-called “Freedom Convoy” plans to continue onto Brussels on Monday to protest restrictions imposed by European nations such as vaccine mandates and health passes meant to stop the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

The pandemic has shutdown Europe for much of the past two years, brought economies to their knees and killed more than 1.6 million people, the largest number of deaths of any region of the world.

But frustrations are building in Europe, as they are in many parts of the world, and Canada's trucker blockades are spurring similar protests and demands for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

“I'm in a free country. I was born free and I want to remain free,” a French man who joined the convoy told France 24, a French public broadcaster.

Unlike the protests in Canada, the French demonstrations appeared to be made up mostly of motorcycles, campers and cars. A few trucks and farm tractors, though, were seen in videos posted on social media and in news clips.

The protests pose a political risk for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing reelection in April and whose main challengers are to his political right and have pushed for loosening coronavirus restrictions.

Many of those descending on Paris said they had supported the yellow vest movement in 2018, which were a series of protests, many of them turning violent, against Macron and his reform agenda. Those protests seriously damaged him politically and he's only slowly regained his footing since, public opinion polls show.

“We demonstrated every Saturday but evidently those protests didn't change much,” a woman who took part in the yellow vest protests told France 24. “Now there's this idea of a convoy like in Canada, so we're going to try that. Maybe that can work.”

Videos on social media showed motorists rallying on highways and in parking lots on their way to Paris honking, blowing horns, waving French flags and shouting “liberté!”

For months, Europe has seen large-scale protests grow in reaction to the imposition of vaccine mandates and other tough measures to combat the pandemic. In Italy, for instance, the unvaccinated have been barred from entry into stores, public offices and restaurants.

Italy has seen numerous demonstrations in its cities and events where large gatherings of people hold feasts and parties in city streets to protest the strict enforcement of its health pass system to gain entry into indoor spaces.

On Friday, Italy, Spain and France became the latest European countries to lift some restrictions. Starting on Friday, people in Italy and Spain were no longer required to wear masks outdoors and France said it will drop an indoor mask mandate starting Feb. 28. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he hopes to lift all coronavirus curbs by Feb. 24.

In Paris, about 7,000 police officers were put on duty to halt the protest convoy from entering the city and armed police vehicles were brought in to quell any unrest.

Under Thursday's tough decree, Parisian police are threatening people who block traffic with two years in prison and 4,500 euros (more than $5,000) in fines and a suspended driver's license.

Citing “risks of trouble to public order,” the Paris police department banned protests aimed at “blocking the capital” from Friday through Monday.

Online chat groups in France have been calling for drivers to converge on Paris starting Friday night, and to continue on to Brussels on Monday. There have been calls to action in Belgium for truckers to converge on the capital, which houses European Union institutions.

Authorities in Belgium banned Monday's threatened blockade and said they would prepare to keep a convoy from cutting off access to the capital. A wide perimeter around the city of 1.1 million would be set up to keep an excess of trucks out of the center of Brussels.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Health, International

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