The fight between civil liberties and social responsibility reared its head again after the fourth weekend of protests across France against the use of vaccine passports (what the French call a Pass Sanitaire).
The French government brought into law this week the need to have a Pass Sanitaire to eat out, travel and participate in other cultural events, such as the cinema.
France’s Pass Sanitaire is not a legal obligation, but for the past week, it has been required when going to the cinema or other cultural places. As of Monday, 9 August, it will also be a legal requirement to show a Pass Sanitaire when dining out, drinking in a bar, visiting a hospital (not for emergencies) and traveling on long distance trains. And from September, it will be legally required by employers, to ensure that all contracted workers have one too.
You do not need to be vaccinated to have a Pass Sanitaire, but if you are not, it must be because you have recently tested negative for Covid-19 or are recovering from Covid-19.
To some, this is a violent infringement of civil liberties and goes against the core of the French mantra of egalité, fraternité and crucially liberté. As over 200,000 protesters hit the streets across France last week, some were wearing jewish stars, marked with non vaccinée (not vaccinated), comparing the government to Nazis. Many were not exactly anti-vaccine but were simply protesting against the need to make it mandatory, arguing that people should be able to decide for themselves. Banners read, Je suis pas un QR code (I am not a QR code) and Je suis pas anti-vax, je suis pro choix (I am not anti-vaccine, just pro choice).
The move has united the hard left and hard right, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a socialist presidential candidate describing the Pass Sanitaire as “absurd, unfair and authoritarian”.
Many protests in France have been organized by Gilets Jeunes (yellow vest) protesters and French officials are said to be concerned by the increasing radicalisation of protests, week after week, as reported by The Telegraph. Similar protests have also taken place in Germany and Italy over the similar proposals in these countries to use the same tactic to pick up vaccination rates.
In response, President Macron has taken to Twitter, Instagram and TikTok urging France (particularly the younger elements of society) to think about the fraternité element of the French motto, arguing that freedom is useless if used unwisely—”It’s about citizenship. Freedom only exists if the freedom of everyone is protected… it’s worth nothing if by exercising our freedom we contaminate our brother, neighbour, friend, parents, or someone we have come across at an event. Then freedom becomes irresponsibility.”
It’s a political gamble as Macron faces reelection in April 2022 but the vast majority of French people support him—current surveys come in at around 60-70% and although 35% sympathize with the protesters, 74% were shocked by the comparisons with Nazi Germany and the use of the Jewish star.
Moreover, the Pass Sanitaire is having its desired effect—more and more people are getting vaccinated and at very fast rates. As reported by The Guardian, at least 7 million French people have been given their first vaccine dose since the government decided to implement the policy. Reservation data on bookings suggest that France will have vaccinated 50 million people over the age of 12 with at least one jab by the end of August.
The question remains just how far similar proposals might be received in other countries? Some in the U.K. think that culture would suffer, as pointed out in The Telegraph, and in the U.S., CNN just doesn’t think it would fly, saying that “for many Americans, individual rights are paramount — even if they appear to infringe the freedom of others to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People just don’t think government can tell them what to do or where to go.”
And whilst this may be the case, few would have imagined 18 months ago that they would be required to do so in France, the country remade out of the idea of individual freedoms.