Will the French accept compulsory vaccination against Covid? Health passports to get on a plane or train? Children of 12 jabbed, whether their parents wish it or not? As fears are stoked of yet another wave of infection, we may be about to find out.
In recent days, France has seemed rather normal with restaurants open, summer holidays in full swing, tourists returning, shops open. But we’re told that none of this will last.
‘We must vaccinate all of France,’ president Macron announced on last night in his fifth Covid television address so far. It was a striking elocution. Macron ditched his habitual black undertaker outfit for a smart blue suit, and his office in the Elysée for the dome of the Grand Palais, framing the Eiffel Tower. It was effectively the launch of his re-election campaign, with plenty of carrots on offer, backed up by a fearsome stick.
Macron pretended that compulsory vaccination was still an open question. But this was rhetorical dissembling, because there is no question that, in practical terms, it will not only be compulsory but it will be impossible to conduct a normal life without it.
This was undoubtedly the most authoritarian speech delivered by a French president in decades, but wrapped in a nakedly political pitch for five more years. We were promised a French version of ‘build back better’ but only if we do as we are told, and only if Macron continues to be in charge.
The president claimed, with scant justification, that France is now the fastest growing, most attractive economy in Europe. He promised plenty of jam tomorrow: lower taxes, better support for the young, more jobs, better care for the aged, reform of the retirement system. All of it with lower taxes. But all of it dependant, he said, on a summer of vaccination, to be enforced with passports.
Covid tests will no longer be free, to coerce the unvaccinated into accepting jabs. With less than half of France fully vaccinated – far below the UK level and lower than many of France’s peer EU countries, and largely due to Macron’s government’s own ineptitude – vaccination will now be compulsory starting almost immediately for anyone working in hospitals. Then, for everyone working in care homes.
In September, for everyone over 12, vaccines are to be rolled out for middle school and high-school pupils. And to mop up any resistance, health passports will become compulsory to get on buses or go to a restaurant. Reinforced frontier controls are to be introduced. The police will be unleashed from September to enforce the new rules.
All this appears a prelude to a two-tier society in which liberty and equality is being jettisoned without much debate. The French might have the liberty to refuse the vaccines, but they will risk losing their jobs, forfeiting the right to travel or buying food. Those with vaccine passports will certainly be more equal than those without.
It would seem a risky political strategy for Macron, with the first round of the French presidential election just 272 days away. He’s evidently calculating that stoking up fear of the Delta variant, with promises of a sunlit upland in the future, will get him re-elected.
‘The one way of making people hang together is to give ’em a spell of the plague,’ wrote Albert Camus in La Peste (The Plague), a book that Macron has certainly read. Compulsion in an age of argumentative social media networks remains a risky gamble for Macron.
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