Protesters took to the streets across France on Saturday for a fourth consecutive weekend to demonstrate against a new health pass needed to enter a cafe or travel on an inter-city train, two days before the new rules come into force.
The new rules championed by French President Emmanuel Macron make it obligatory to have either a full course of vaccination against Covid-19, be in possession of a negative test or be recently recovered from the virus to enjoy usually routine activities.
Macron, who faces re-election next year, hopes the new rules will encourage all French to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and defeat the virus and its fast-spreading Delta variant.
But opponents, who have turned out en masse in the streets in the past weeks, argue that the rules encroach on civil liberties in a country where individual freedom is prized.
Two days before the new pass comes into effect, protests have been planned in a number of cities, including Paris, Lille in the northeast and Toulon on the Mediterranean coast.
In one of several protests planned in the Paris area alone, hundreds began gathering at Pont de Neuilly metro station for a march to the city centre, chanting “Freedom!” and “No to the health pass”.
Wearing a mask, Alexandre Fourez, 34, said he was protesting for the first time and that he had himself recovered from Covid-19. “The problem with the health pass is that our hand is being forced,” said the marketing employee, adding he “really has difficulty believing its use will be temporary”.
Top court rules pass complies with French constitution
On Thursday, days after France’s top constitutional authority approved the pass, calling it a “balanced trade-off” between public health concerns and personal freedom.
The health pass limits access to inter-city trains and planes to the vaccinated, and to people who can prove they have tested negative for the virus.
Critics accuse Macron of running a health “dictatorship” by forcing people to get vaccinated against their will. They say the pass limits their movements outside home — and implicitly makes vaccinations mandatory.
The key debate around the health pass has been the power of the state, explained Andrew Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of Chichester, in an interview with FRANCE 24. Following the Constitutional Court ruling, Smith noted that, “this bill has now been subjected to a democratic process, to scrutiny, through France’s political procedures, and so it is republican, it’s democratic, something that has been done legitimately”.
Restaurant owners resist ‘checking’ clients
The health pass has been in effect since July 21 for cultural and recreational venues, including cinemas, concert halls and theme parks with a capacity for more than 50 people. But the new law vastly extends its application.
The biggest change concerns restaurants which will now have to turn away patrons who fail to produce the health pass. Many restaurant owners say it is not their job to enforce the law, checking each client for a pass.
Visitors to some shopping centres and department stores will also need the pass, as will visitors to hospitals or care homes and people seeking non-urgent medical care.
Last week, the French interior ministry estimated that 204,000 people had participated in the nationwide demonstrations.
The same turnout is expected at Saturday’s protests, a police source told AFP.