Macron: literally Hitler. Credit: CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/ AFP via Getty

August 6, 2021   6 mins

Le virus c’est l’état (“The virus is the state”) — so reads a freshly-painted slogan on a motorway bridge on the Norman-Breton border.

This may be the work of the anarchist far-left. It may be the work of the libertarian Right. It may — though less plausibly — have been painted by ordinary apolitical people infuriated by President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to ban all fun and long-distance travel for unvaccinated citizens from Monday.

All three of these groups, along with many other angry citizens, were represented in the protests against the “passe sanitaire” (health pass) on Saturday, which attracted over 200,000 people to 150 demonstrations in French towns and cities last Saturday.

Politics goes to the street more rapidly in France than other democracies — but protests during the late July-August holiday season are very unusual. And the numbers have doubled since they kicked off three weeks ago. Further protests are expected this weekend.

The political and social geology of the gatherings is equally bizarre. There are anarchists. There are fundamentalist Catholics. There are dotty conspiracy theorists. There are priggish anti-vaccine fanatics, some of whom attacked and destroyed a stall in front of a pharmacy offering free Covid tests on Saturday’s march in Montpellier. There is the anti-capitalist hard-Left, which believes the pandemic was invented by “Big pharma” to sell vaccines. There is anti-Semitic ultra-right — some of them holding banners which read simply “qui?” or “who?”. The intended message is that “you-know-who” (ie the Jews) are somehow responsible for the pandemic.

There is the rump of the anti-Macron Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018-9, which has little support and no clear aims but is keen to latch on to any protest against the President. And there are also many hundreds of moderate-seeming, apolitical people. Many are young. Many come in family groups. Some are anti-vaccine. Others detest the idea of health passes restricting personal freedoms or creating separate categories of French people: the government-approved “fully-jabbed” and the unvaccinated and “unclean”.

In Caen, Mélanie, a primary school teacher in her thirties, said: “I’m vaccinated. I’ve never protested before. I’m not interested in politics. But I can’t accept a segregated society. This is supposed to be the country which invented human rights.”

In Paris there were four separate marches to accommodate the different points of view. In other towns and cities, habitual enemies walked together in condemnation of Macron and the French parliament which approved the health pass last week.

Some amendments were accepted during the emergency debate but the broad thrust of Macron’s policy passed both houses of parliament. To travel long distances or to visit a café, restaurant, cinema or museum from next Monday you must be able to show a code proving one of three things: you are fully vaccinated; you have recovered from Covid; or you recently tested negative. All health and care workers must be vaccinated by 15 September or risk suspension or dismissal.

Similar, though more limited, “vaccine passports” have been introduced in other EU countries, as well as in New York City. But the French pass is the most comprehensive in Europe. Macron argues that it rewards those who put aside individual or selfish concerns to protect themselves and others – a classic example of “fraternité”, one of the three principles proclaimed by the French Republic.

Opponents say that the pass contravenes the principle of “liberté” or freedom of individual choice; or that it offends against the principle of “égalité” because it divides the French into first and second-class citizens.

These allegations – and the suggestion that Macron is somehow turning France into a dictatorship – – fell flat on their face yesterday. The Conseil Constitutionnel, which fulfils some of duties of the US Supreme court, approved the pass with a couple of relatively minor tweaks.

All in all, the health pass has exposed the contradictory and — somewhat teenaged — French attitudes to “the state”.

The French Etat (the “virus” on the Norman-Breton motorway bridge) is expected to be all-protecting. It is also constantly criticised for being intrusive and suffocating. Mummy, or Maman, state is expected to do the laundry; she is also criticised if she interferes in her children’s/citizen’s lives.

Another less of the health-pass protests — but not an entirely new one — is that part of the French ultra or alternative Left is now as “anti-state” as the American hard Right. In the United States, and up to a point in the UK, the politics of Covid scepticism has been a largely a Right-wing affair. In France it is more diffuse.

I visited friends in a picturesque Breton village this week which is divided between two hostile tribes: ultra- conservative Catholic locals and green, alternative-artistic incomers. “They now agree on one thing,” my friend said. “They don’t really believe Covid exists.”

And yet and yet…

It is important to point out — as some foreign media commentary on the protests fails to point out — that the Macron health pass has already been an immense success.

Its intention is to revive the French vaccine programme, which was famously slow in January and February. It was quietly excellent from March to mid-June, but faded again as it ran into layers of the vax-shy, vax-lazy, vax-sceptical and vax-resistant.

France has long been the most anti-vaccine country in the developed world. One opinion poll last year suggested that fewer than one in two adults would seek vaccination against Covid-19. The real numbers of the willing proved much higher but they slumped in late June — as they also have in Britain.

Confronted with a Delta surge threatening a fourth Covid wave, Macron reneged on his promise not to coerce or force the French to be vaccinated. The impact was immediate, with one million people booking jabs online in the 24 hours after his announcement. Since when, well over 7 million French people have received their first vaccine, taking the total to over 44 million or 80% of the adult population. The rate of vaccination has almost doubled and shows no sign of slowing in the habitually inactive month of August.

Roland Lescure, spokesman for Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LRM) and member of parliament for French expats in North America, said: “There were 200,000 demonstrators with all kinds of motives (last Saturday). On the same day 500,000 people were vaccinated – which means 8.5m first vaccinations in the month of July. The result is not even close.”

Arguably, Macron’s decision to impose the pass — and it was largely his decision — will save hundreds of French lives.

Some of the old vaccine critics, such as the hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, now criticise the health-pass without fully supporting the protests. Centre-right and centre-left opposition parties voted in favour – but say little in pubic to support Macron’s approach. There is, after all, a presidential election next spring.

Opinion polls suggest that the health pass is broadly popular with French people. Between 60 and 70% of samples questioned by pollsters say that they approve. Only 40% (at most) say they support the protesters although 50% say they “understand them”. The Gilets Jaunes movement – with which the pass protests have been compared – attracted over 70% support in its early months.

On the other hand, while support for the GJ’s gradually declined, support for the anti-passers — both in the polls and on the street — seems to be increasing.

They may, in part, represent a surge of anger against the on-off social restrictions of the last 18 months. No attempt to organise protests against mask-wearing or curfews has been successful in France. The anti-health pass protests have channelled months of frustration.

When Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980 his funeral attracted a huge crowd, one man saying that he had “come to demonstrate against Sartre’s death”. Many of the non-political participants on Saturday’s marches were demonstrating — consciously or not – against Covid-19.

The sociologist Jean Viard says that a leaderless coalition of the ordinary and the politically-motivated should worry the government. “This movement is a cocktail which could prove explosive and whose boundaries are difficult to draw,” he said.

In particular, he predicted, the protests could be the harbinger of a more widespread social unrest (and not just in France) if the Covid pandemic – fuelled by new variants – drags into 2022 or beyond.

Government ministers admit that they are surprised that the protests have not faded away and this Saturday will be an important test. Another big turnout on the first full weekend of August, even if somewhat lower than last week, will suggest that the movement is here to stay. It could grow larger in September and, potentially, damage Macron’s campaign for re-election in April.

On the other hand, Macron’s gamble could pay off. France is well on the way to reaching its target of first-vaccinating 50 million people over the age of 12 by the end of this month. On present trends, France should overtake the UK total of first vaccinations (covering people 18 and over) within the next two to three weeks.

The Delta wave, which hit France late, is already showing signs of fading. The health pass was always meant to be temporary. Once France reaches 52 million or so first jabs – around over 90% of over 12’s – Macron could declare it to have been hugely successful and no longer necessary. He could even hope — cautiously — to reap a Covid bonus in the elections in April.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.