July 20, 2021 - 3:25pm

In the name of freedom, French anti-vaccine militants have attacked two vaccination centres in recent days, burning one to the ground.

In the name of freedom, more than 100,000 people demonstrated in 130 towns last Saturday.

In the name of freedom, some of the demonstrators wore yellow stars of David or carried banners in which President Emmanuel Macron was depicted with a Hitler moustache. The suggestion that vaccination, forced or otherwise, can be compared to the Holocaust has  caused widespread consternation in France — and not just amongst French Jews.

The protests last weekend included an extraordinary coalition of the usual suspects of French street politics from the far-Left to the far-Right and from the stubborn rump of the Gilets Jaunes anti-Macron movement of 2018-9.

Other demonstrators — many others — self-identified themselves as being non-political people: restaurant owners, nurses, care-workers all infuriated by Macron’s decision to make vaccination against Covid-19 compulsory for health workers and necessary from August 1st for access to bars, restaurants cinemas and long-haul trains and buses.

Further manifs (demos) are expected next weekend. The numbers involved so far are small — by French standards — but they are still much higher than the government expected. They may grow. Alternatively, they may fade away as holiday season advances.

The two attacks on rural vaccination centres — one in a marquee at Urrugne in the western Pyrenees was entirely destroyed — are isolated incidents so far. There have also been attacks on the constituency offices of leading pro-Macron politicians and threats of violence against pro-vax politicians on line.

It is important to bear in mind that the great majority of French people — 60 to 70%  according to opinion polls — approve Macron’s decision last week to make France’s voluntary vaccination programme much less voluntary. From mid-September health and care workers face suspension and then dismissal if they fail to get vaccinated. From 1 August, access to most forms of fun as well as long-distance travel will require a “health pass”, indicating full vaccination or a recent negative test.

Macron justified this decision with two sets of figures. Firstly, a spike in Covid patients driven by the Delta variant threatens to cause a fourth wave of the pandemic, potentially as quickly as by the middle of next month. Secondly, the French vaccination programme, after a strong recovery from a slow start, has slumped, mostly because of lack of demand from young people in their 20s and 30s.

It is important to keep a sense of perspective in light of these protests. The great majority of French people have reacted positively to Macron’s ‘big stick’ legislative changes. Yes, over 100,000 people demonstrated last weekend — but around 6,000,000 people have signed up for their first jabs since Macron announced the policy on Monday of last week.

The manifs are respectable enough (Holocaust references apart). Anti-vaccine arguments are acceptable — even necessary — in a democracy, self-righteous and conspiracy-obsessed though they may sometimes be. However, the increasing turn towards violence amongst the vaccine-skeptical is a disturbing development. Macron must act now to punish those responsible, before the situation escalates out of control.

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.