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France’s Vaccination-Pass Experiment

This summer, France has rolled out its pass-sanitaire (health-pass) system, which requires that people show proof of vaccination, a negative COVID test, or proof of a past COVID infection in order to attend public events, visit museums and cinemas, and—as of this week—enter restaurants, cafés, long-distance trains, and airplanes. The system is one of the strictest national vaccine policies in Europe, and has become a cultural and political flash point in France: over the last month, thousands of critics of President Emmanuel Macron have protested in the streets, decrying the passes as divisive and illiberal.

The fight over the vaccine passes draws upon political tensions that predate the pandemic. Macron, a former member of the center-left Socialist Party, created his own centrist party, La République En Marche!, and won a runoff election against the far-right politician Marine Le Pen in 2017. Macron’s early economic policies, including tax breaks for the wealthy, quickly divided the country, with people across the political spectrum castigating him as a President concerned primarily with the interests of the élite.

I recently talked about Macron’s pandemic policies—and the broad populist resistance to his governance—with Cécile Alduy, a professor of French literature and culture at Stanford University and an expert in French politics. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed France’s “nudge” approach to vaccination policy, how the current wave of protests in France differs from the American anti-vaccine movement, and what the fight over health passes suggests about the future of French politics.

How do you think Macron’s vaccine policies have been playing out so far?

Well, it’s only recently that it’s been stricter. Until mid-July, there was no restriction based on vaccination status, apart from large events. And, even back in the fall, Macron had vouched that he would never make vaccination an obligation for anyone. It’s with the rise of the Delta variant, after fully opening up the country by June 30th, that the government decided to increasingly link certain rights and access to places to vaccination or testing. One nuance is that vaccination is compulsory only for health-care workers, starting September 15th, and a few other professionals who are directly in contact with populations. But otherwise, one can get what’s called the pass sanitaire by three means. One is full vaccination. The second is a negative COVID test within the previous seventy-two hours. And the third is a proof of immunization from having contracted COVID.

Why do you think Macron changed course and began some of the strictest vaccine policies in Europe?

The change is part of a more general governmental attitude toward the pandemic, which is to use the nudge theory to sway the population in one direction. It’s been the case for the confinement, or quarantining, as well: instead of making things compulsory, the government put in place measures that very strongly nudge the population to go in one direction. Here, it’s vaccination. So, on the one hand, it’s preserving the appearance of respecting individual rights and freedoms by not making it compulsory. On the other hand, it is nudging people strongly to get vaccinated, to make their lives easier, to access a number of services and cultural events, so that in the fall, we don’t have to close the economy again.

Around seventy per cent of the population is in agreement with imposing some kinds of restrictions on who can access certain services based on the risk they pose for others. But there is also a very strong and vocal and determined part of the population that strictly opposes any restriction in the name of the liberties, and also in the name of respecting individuals’ reluctance to get vaccinated, because, according to them, there is not enough data on the side effects of the vaccine.

Before we turn to the opposition, how well do you think the policy has been working in terms of nudging people to get vaccinated?

It’s been working really well, actually. Macron announced the expansion of his health-pass policy on Monday, July 12th. Appointments for vaccinations topped one million within a single day. There’s been a significant uptick in appointments being made, whether it is for starting the vaccination process or finishing it, and it’s being accompanied by a much more deliberate policy to make access to vaccination, even in places where people go on vacation, much easier, so that people can start the vaccination process where they reside, go on vacation, and finish it there. I think that we’re talking about several million people getting into the process of completing their entire vaccination process over the summer, with the hope that at least eighty per cent will have received one dose by the end of August. So it could be called a success.

There has certainly been, in France, some opposition to Macron’s policy from the far right and the likes of Marine Le Pen. But there’s also some resistance from the far left. How would you characterize the opposition?

The specific thing about France is that the opposition to the health passes and the nudge approach to vaccination is coalescing the existing opposition to Macron, and follows social tensions that were embodied in the Yellow Vest movement, which existed before COVID. In terms of sociological makeup and ideological affinities, there’s a pretty strong overlap between the Yellow Vest movement and the current anti-vaccination movement.

The Yellow Vests emerged as a spontaneous social protest against a tax on gas that would affect predominantly lower-middle-class or lower-class people who rely on their cars to go to work pretty far away. Many rural communities felt that they were punished because they had no alternative to taking their cars. And it kind of erupted beyond the original pretext and became an opposition to what was labelled the élite.

So it was very strong, with a few hundred thousand people in the streets on some Saturdays. And it devolved into some violence against institutions in general, including the media, including assemblymen, including the police. The movement was extremely volatile. And, ideologically speaking, it was all over the map with one rallying cry, which was a very strong opposition to Macron as a person and a President. Today, we see some of the leaders of the movement back in the streets to oppose what they call anti-liberties and antisocial restrictions. There is this vaguely libertarian aspect to it, with liberté as one of the slogans that has been used by many, whether they are on the far left or the far right.

And what’s very special and difficult to manage for the government is that, politically speaking, no party or movement really supports the Yellow Vests fully, but they are echoed by opposition leaders such as Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, who condemn the fact that the restrictions are going to create a two-tiered society. They are capitalizing again on this idea that Macron is a divider of the country, that he is instituting a second-class citizenship, which was, again, very much a slogan of the Yellow Vests. So, the people in the streets today have a wide range of reasons to oppose the passes, and some are completely apolitical, like most of the Yellow Vests were. But the common denominator is this defiance to and distress about institutions and the government.

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