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Summer of Vaccines: France Roiled by Mandatory Vaccine Policy

French President Emmanuel Macron's mandatory vaccination policies have triggered widespread protests, heating up French politics ahead of presidential elections in April.

(CN) — French politics are heating up as large protests and lawsuits break out over new rules that essentially make vaccination compulsory to take part in social life in France.

Over the weekend, more than 100,000 people took to the streets to decry French President Emmanuel Macron's tough new rules that require proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter cafes, restaurants, churches, trains, shopping centers, cinemas, sports stadiums and many other public places. Two vaccination centers were also targeted by vandals.

Starting on Wednesday, some French venues that hold more than 50 people will start asking people to show so-called digital “health passes” that certify a person's vaccination status. Macron has also made it mandatory for all health workers to get vaccinated.

France, the birthplace of Louis Pasteur and his vaccine breakthroughs, is ironically also a land where many people express deep reservations about vaccines and, until more recently, where a majority were opposed to taking a vaccine against the novel coronavirus ravaging every corner of the world.

But, as the rest of Europe has seen, vaccine hesitancy has largely vanished in a French population fed up with lockdowns, masks, and the fear of getting sick and even dying from Covid-19. France has one of the highest death tolls in Europe from the pandemic: More than 111,490 deaths have been linked to the virus.

For the most part, the protesters represent the fringes of French society, and news reports and polls suggest the vast majority of French support Macron's mandatory vaccine policy as an effective measure to prevent the country plunging into yet another lockdown. Infections are on the rise in France, especially in tourist towns in southern France. Masks are once again becoming mandatory even outdoors in many tourist towns.

Nonetheless, Macron's rules are controversial and may end up being thrown out by the courts. Lawsuits challenging their constitutionality are being filed by a hospitality industry worried about losing clients and by opposition politicians.

On Tuesday, Macron's health minister, Olivier Veran, presented the proposed rules to France's lower chamber, the National Assembly. Macron's neoliberal party, the Republic on the March, has a majority, and the legislation is expected to pass by the end of the week.

Still, Macron's draconian approach to vaccines may end up hurting him as he starts his campaign for reelection next April.

A star that reads "not vaccinated" is attached on the back of an anti-vaccine protesters during a Saturday rally in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

Both the far-left and the far-right factions — there is Jean-Luc Melenchon's France Unbowed on the far left and Marine Le Pen's National Rally on the other side — are attacking Macron for enforcing health passes.

“We are not in a dictatorship but there is a form of authoritarianism in the country,” said Alexis Corbiere, a deputy with France Unbowed and a spokesman for the party, according to Le Parisien newspaper. “Fundamental freedoms are today called into question.”

He said France Unbowed supports vaccination, but that Macron's measures go too far and will end up alienating people who don't want to get vaccinated.

“We must try to convince and not exclude people who are reluctant to get vaccinated,” he said.

Macron is no stranger to controversies and protests, and his new measures immediately brought people back onto the streets.

Last week, protesters, most of them young people, were seen attacking government buildings in Paris, and riot police deployed smoke to break up bombs marches against the so-called “anti-freedom” bill.

Macron's presidency has been marked by public distaste, and even anger, over his sweeping, many say arrogant, attempts at overhauling French society and government.

Ahead of April elections, he remains unpopular and his hopes for reelection are uncertain, though he remains the favorite, mostly due to political fragmentation and disillusionment with French politics, particularly with the traditional powers on the left and right, namely the Socialist Party and Les Republicains.

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His unpopularity was summed up in early June when a man slapped Macron in the face when the president spoke with people at a barrier in southern France.

As a pro-business leader straddling the liberal-conservative fence, Macron has sought to carve out a place for himself in French history as the president who pulled France kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

He's loosened labor laws, tried to revamp France's generous retirement system, sought to rewrite the constitution, challenged labor unions, introduced controversial laws targeting Muslims, and pushed to make France a military and technological might once again.

Anti-vaccine protesters in Paris hold a banner that reads "my health belongs to me" as tens of thousands of people rallied across France on Saturday against the government's latest measures to curb rising Covid-19 infections and drive up vaccinations in the country. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Macron's rollercoaster presidency hit more lows during the pandemic when he was either seen as not doing enough or doing too little to stop the spread of the virus.

Getting tough on vaccines, then, appears to be his gamble to get it right: defeat the virus and win back the trust of France.

For now, it appears the gambit is working out: Record numbers of French signed up for vaccinations after Macron announced the introduction of the health passes.

On July 12, Macron ordered France to adopt a system whereby people will be required to demonstrate they have been vaccinated, tested negative or recently recovered from Covid-19 in order to be allowed into most indoor public spaces.

Besides political calculations, there are pragmatic, urgent, reasons for the policy too: As elsewhere in Europe, France is in the midst of a worrying spike in Covid-19 infections.

On Monday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said France was at the beginning of fourth wave of the pandemic.

Macron did something else too: He positioned himself as a bold leader ready to show the way for the rest of the world.

Since he announced the health pass rules, the rest of Europe has been plunged into an intense debate over the legality, effectiveness and practicality of health passes. The European Union has endorsed an EU-wide digital certificate called a “green pass.” Digital certificates show the vaccination status of an individual and is stored on smartphones so they can be easily scanned. Other European countries are either introducing similar measures or contemplating doing so.

Even the United Kingdom — a country where people don't even have to carry an identity card with them — is looking at requiring people to show they are vaccinated before they can go into pubs, nightclubs and restaurants.

Indeed, the U.K., a world leader in vaccinating its population, has become a terrifying example of what may happen in other countries unless draconian measures are taken to stop the spread of the virus.

Following weeks of loosening restrictions, the U.K. is in the grips of a stunning wave of new infections. In the past month, the number of new daily infections has skyrocketed from about 9,000 to more than 45,000, by far the highest in western Europe. Spain, a tourist destination for many Brits, is reporting the second highest number in Europe, more than 27,000 new infections each day.

But most of the new cases are being found in younger people who aren't vaccinated and are at lower risk of serious sickness. Indeed, deaths and hospitalizations remain under control in Britain, though both are ticking up too: In recent days, the death toll has risen, and more than 40 people a day are dying, a quadrupling from a month ago.

Despite its new wave, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted all restrictions in England, declaring Monday “Freedom Day.”

Anti-vaccine protesters hold a placard that says "health dictatorship" during a Saturday rally in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

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