Macron’s new strict rules on COVID could determine France’s future.
During the current season of discontent in France, yellow has become the color of protest. There are, not surprisingly, the new flurries of yellow vests, emblematic of the country’s massive anti-establishment protests in 2019-2020.
Perhaps more surprisingly, a growing number of protesters against the government’s new COVID measures are sporting yellow five-pointed stars, the emblem worn by French Jews boarding French trains for Auschwitz from 1942.
The merger of yellow vests or yellow stars, in turn, triggered yellow lights that blink furiously not only for the French state but also for the state of historical knowledge.
Earlier this month, two days before this year’s National Day celebrations, a grim-faced president Emmanuel Macron gave a nationally televised speech. Sitting in front of a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the 19the century testifying to the vigor of French technology and Republican ingenuity – Macron announced that the skyrocketing infection rate coupled with the flattening of the vaccination rate had forced the hand of his government. All medical staff, Macron warned, had to be vaccinated by September 15e. Those who fail to do so face unspecified sanctions.
More importantly, if only because it would affect the millions of French people not yet vaccinated, Macron announced the creation of a “health pass”. Those who are fully vaccinated or who test negative are free to enter shopping and cultural sites, as well as use long-distance transport. As for those who are not vaccinated, well, so muchs. After July 21, nearly 70 million French people will literally end up in or out of the bus.
(Companies that refuse or neglect to control their customers risk being under the bus, subject to a series of increasing fines.)
The harsh terms of this quid pro quo reflect the difficult situation Macron is currently facing. With the infection rate increasing by 125% over the course of a week, a fourth wave of the pandemic is about to crash into France this summer.
Alarmed health officials are warning that hospital intensive care units will be overflowing again, but this time not with those who have not been able to get vaccinated, but with those who may still refuse to be vaccinated. Such an eventuality will not only have seismic social and economic consequences, but also political consequences for the elections next spring, in which Macron will fight for his re-election for a second term.
Macron’s decision to go back on his earlier promises not to impose a health card made him appear both dictatorial and hesitant. In his speech, Macron explained that by imposing the pass instead of a full lockdown, the government is “pushing you to get vaccinated.” But this goal can be seen in two very different ways. Emmanuel Rusch, a public health expert, observed that while many believe the policy reintroduces “individual freedoms by limiting restrictions, others believe those freedoms are violated precisely because of these restrictions.” Either way, Rusch concluded, Macron’s statement will test “the country’s appetite for laws that constrain and language that rules.”
The response to the speech was as swift as it was mixed. For many, the boost was clearly what they needed: a record number of vaccination requests, over 1 million, were made the day after Macron’s speech. Others backed off. According to an IPSOS poll, more than 60% of those questioned support Macron’s decision to restrict access to shopping spaces to people who have been vaccinated. Yet at the start of a quarter, a majority of whom identify as members of the National Gathering, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, categorically opposes such measures. As often in France, political and ideological extremes have met, the far right finding itself in the company of many people from the far left. The leader of the far left France rebellious, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, predicted that the proposed laws would lead to a “society of permanent control and conflict”. Likewise, Marine Le Pen tweeted that the measures would result in a “worrying decline in individual freedoms”.
However, the two leaders also spoke by appearing in the protests against the laissez-passer which took place last Saturday, with more than 100,000 demonstrators gathered in several French cities and more than 10,000 flocking along the Parisian boulevards. Not only did Mélenchon and Le Pen avoid joining the crowd, they were also careful to walk the fine line between anti-pass and anti-vaccine movements. They insisted on both the benefits of vaccines and the meanness of Macron’s proposals, while warning their supporters who joined the protests not to engage in what Mélenchon called “inappropriate comparisons.”
What he meant by that was clarified by the demonstrators in Paris and in the provinces.
Dotting the crowd of protesters, a number of whom identified with the yellow vests, were placards declaring that Macron’s proposals were not only authoritarian – a word often used by Mélenchon – but fascist. Other signs made comparisons with the occupation of war, making rhyme “health dictatorship” with “Nazi pass” or superimposing Hitler’s mustache on an image of Macron.
Others have gone even further, connecting crazy dots between the Holocaust and the health pass. In a riff on the infamous motto on the gates of Auschwitz, “Arbeit macht frei“, A protester held a sign declaring” the health pass makes you free “. Other protesters carried or held placards with the yellow star, or yellow star of David. This was perhaps the most disturbing comparison, given the role the French authorities played during the occupation both in imposing the star on French Jews and in rounding them up to deport them to the death camps. . As one protester kindly explained to a journalist, “Macron does exactly the same thing with his health passport as Vichy did with the star: forcing you to identify yourself.”
Unsurprisingly, politicians from the far left to the far right have rushed to be the first to speak out against these comparisons. No less predictable, expressions of outrage, especially from those, like Le Pen and Mélenchon, with a predilection for conspiracy theories and a penchant for authoritarian rule, will have no more impact than health warnings on a pack of cigarettes. As the words and actions of Republican American politicians like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Washington’s Jim Walsh remind us, Americans are hardly immune to the virus of moral opacity and historical stupidity. Neither are we any more free than France to other politicians who knowingly allow those to espouse these fools as well as embrace voters who believe them.
What makes the spread of this “virus” in France particularly worrying, however, is the immediacy of its past and its near future. Last Saturday’s protests took place on 79e anniversary of the great “roundup” or roundup by the Parisian police of French and foreign Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942. Dubbed the “Spring Wind”, the police operation brought together 7,000 men, women and children easily identifiable by the yellow star that they were forced to wear on their clothes or their armbands. Almost all were eventually sent to Auschwitz; almost none of them returned.
Just as the proximity of this past has not calmed some in France, the approach of next year’s elections reminds others of the fragility of their democracy.
Weakened by a fierce pandemic, a struggling economy and a fragmented society, Macron failed to convince the country he deserved a second term. While the polls have shown a slight improvement since the beginning of spring, 65% of those questioned nevertheless remain “dissatisfied” with Macron’s performance in power.
But at the same time, Macron is doing his best to ensure that his opponent in 2022 will be Le Pen again. Not only is its negative rating higher than Macron’s, but the threat it poses to democracy in France is even greater. Just as the choice for this summer for a majority of French people is the less bad alternative of the health pass, the choice of next spring will be for the less bad alternative of the president who is in charge of it.
Unless, of course, the health pass manages to stem the coming fourth wave. Then the election will be wide open, as will Le Pen’s chances.