France’s newly minted vaccine pass took effect on Monday, requiring everyone over the age of 16 to be fully vaccinated to get into restaurants, cinemas, museums and so forth, without the possibility of presenting a negative Covid test to enjoy these mainstays of social and cultural life.
One exception as France enters the homestretch to its presidential election in April is attending campaign rallies, with the Constitutional Council saying such a requirement would be unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the so-called ‘Sages’ did not consider the constitutionality of the vaccine pass in view of article R.4127-36 of France’s public health law requiring informed consent:
The consent of the person examined or treated must be sought in every case. When the patient, in a state capable of expressing his wish, refuses proposed tests or treatment(s), the doctor must respect this refusal after informing the patient of its consequences.
Also enshrined in the law and compromised by the vaccine pass are the right to medical confidentiality and the right to privacy.
Controversially, the new law will allow a barman, for example, to ask to see a customer’s ID to check against the vaccine pass, in case of a suspicion of fraud (henceforth punishable by a fine of 1,000 euros).
‘Everyone will check everyone — that’s a totalitarian society!’ thundered presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, during the parliamentary debate.
A little advertised loophole is the possibility of providing proof of recovery from Covid – an acknowledgement of natural immunity.
The tightening of the screws in France comes as some of its neighbours are loosening theirs — with British PM Boris Johnson saying mandatory Covid certification would end in England and Spain’s regions opening up one by one. Johnson’s Spanish counterpart Pedro Sánchez urged the EU overall to start treating Covid like the flu, and on Sunday the World Health Organization’s Europe chief said the continent could start envisaging the pandemic’s ‘endgame’ thanks to the takeover of the Omicron variant. The remark came just days after the WHO said airlines’ travel restrictions should be lifted or eased because ‘they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress’ of some countries.
The vaccine pass’ passage into law was initially expected to be a slam dunk but turned into an embarrassing marathon for the government, with bipartisan pushback as well from people on the streets and online.
The debate was set under a fast-track mechanism that has been used by President Emmanuel Macron numerous times since he took office in 2017. Even so, MPs in the lower house dominated by Macron’s centrist party found themselves deliberating well into the wee hours on several nights, achieving final passage at 4am on Sunday January 16th, with a vote of 214 to 93, with 27 abstentions..
Early on in the process, Macron scored an own goal with incendiary comments to the Paris daily Le Parisien vowing to ‘hassle’ the unvaccinated ‘to the bitter end’, using a vulgar word, emmerder. Even more shocking was his next remark: ‘If your freedom threatens others’ freedom, you become irresponsible. And irresponsible people are no longer citizens,’ he said. Uproar over the interview led to a new suspension of debate in the early hours of January 12, and the first vote on the bill was not held until 24 hours later.
That weekend, more than 100,000 people (by the media’s typical gross underestimation) took to rainy streets across France to protest the draft law and to vent anger against Macron, many carrying signs reading ‘Manu, je t’emmerde’ – ‘Screw you, Manu’ (the diminutive of Emmanuel).
And while the law eventually passed with a large majority, it had to surmount the challenge posed by 60 opposition MPs – from the far left, centre left and centre right – who took the matter to the Constitutional Council, winning only the concession on entry into election campaign rallies. Clearly, requiring proof of vaccination would be beyond the pale for a number of parties, including Melenchon’s LFI and far-right icon Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. Both Melenchon and Le Pen have vowed to eliminate the vaccine pass if elected.
Another right-wing candidate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, has made the same promise. After the vote in parliament, he tweeted: ‘Tonight, I no longer recognise my country. A feeling of disgust over the cowardice of those who voted for this freedom-killing law… I will do all I can to restore FREEDOM to the French on (election day) April 10.’
Omicron to the fore
The growing dominance of the Omicron variant is helping to shatter the illusion that the vaccine pass will further help protect people. Indeed, Health Minister Olivier Veran admitted in mid-December that the primary goal is to induce the last five million French people to get the jab. Asked about the difference between the health pass in use since May 2021 and the new vaccine pass, he told the online news site Brut: ‘The vaccine pass is a disguised form of requiring vaccination, but more effective than requiring vaccination.’
He added: ‘The idea is not to punish, to sanction, to ostracise, but to say, “now you don’t have a choice anymore”, you don’t hesitate anymore.’
But people are hesitating, becoming increasingly aware of the incongruity of using coercive tactics to persuade people to accept a vaccine that fails to prevent infection at a time when the extremely mild Omicron variant of Covid is becoming dominant.
A poll commissioned by the conservative daily Le Figaro found that nearly two-thirds of respondents — 62 percent — are in favour of the vaccine pass. But 71 percent want it to be ‘automatically suspended as soon as the health situation improves’ — and Le Figaro said the government ‘has declined to detail the conditions’ for such a suspension.
Pollster Véronique Reille-Soult of Backbone Consulting, which conducted the survey along with Odoxa, concluded: ‘If the constraints are no longer justified on health grounds, the French will no longer accept them.’ She notes that on social media, commentators ‘are also beginning to wonder why our country is not following the example of Spain, which is scrapping constraints in view of Omicron’s much less dangerous impact on (public) health.’
Among those who may begin asking such questions are the estimated 560,000 people who already stand to lose their ticket to normal life because they haven’t had their latest jab in time.
This number can only increase as the days go by, and catch many people by surprise.
As for Macron, he may rue the day he used the ‘M’ word. An IFOP poll out Sunday found his approval rating down four points in a month, to thirty-seven per cent.