I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. In spite of the character Al Bundy in Married with Children blaming everything wrong in the world on the French, ya gotta love them. Just when you think you’ve figured them out and recognized that their collective psyche drives them to be contrary (why else is au contraire in French?), they do something so irresistibly charming that you take back everything you’ve ever said about them being high-strung snobs with baguettes.
What have they done that is so irresistible? They have taken to the streets, as they are wont to do, in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s planned expansion of the “health pass” (le pass sanitaire). In May the Assemblee Nationale approved the use of passes to show people’s vaccination status regarding Covid-19; that is, vaccinated, tested negative, or recovered. The pass went into effect July 1 and is required for travel within the European Union. You must show your status before boarding any flight. If you don’t, you will be turned away as one of the unwashed–unvaccinated–and subject to public humiliation by everyone at the boarding gate. However, even if you are vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask. Preferably in the French tricolor.
Macron has made the pass mandatory at cultural and sporting events, theaters, movie houses, and concert halls. Beginning next month it also will be required in cafes, shops, restaurants, and trains. You will need it to enter any of these. Having taken an express train from Brussels to Lyon one summer, I can tell you that the trains are crowded, although contracting a virus wasn’t my primary concern at the time. After the mandate, they may be less so. Macron has made the vaccine mandatory for doctors, nurses, caregivers, and anyone deemed “vulnerable.” I’m not sure who does the deeming, but I certainly wouldn’t want the French government (or any government) doing it. That kind of thing has a bad track record.
As you might expect, the French are, to put it delicately, en colère. They’ve taken to the streets by the tens of thousands to show their anger and bang the drum, literally, for liberté, which many believe is dying. They characterize the situation with words like “dictatorship,” “totalitariansim,” and “medical apartheid.” Macron’s political opponents have compared the health pass to the social-credit rating system used by the Communist Party in China.
Most of these people are not anti-vaxxers. They acknowledge the obvious danger of Covid and object neither to vaccines nor masks. In fact, many march while wearing a mask. Others, being French, smoke cigarettes. All claim to be fighting the heavy-handed way the government is imposing its will on them. Not surprisingly, mainstream news sources like the Associated Press refer to them as “far-right activists” and Gilets Jaunes members. Some are, but the impression you get after listening to speeches and seeing the diversity of the crowds that have gathered across France is that these people simply have had enough.
They are not alone. Similar protests are taking place in Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Australia, and–of all places–New York. No one wants to go back to lockdowns, but with the possibility of Covid variants coming at us like so many Planet of the Apes sequels, who knows what will happen? The only certainty is that nothing appears off the table with many governments and their propaganda arms in the media, including forced vaccinations and the restriction of civil liberties to the point where our lives are not ours anymore.
I did find a bright spot amid the protests and speeches throughout the day, however. While waiting for the next speaker at a rally at the Trocadero Square in Paris with the Eiffel Tower reaching for the sky in the background, the crowd was treated to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” They danced in the street, and I realized that if humor becomes our last line of defense, I have no doubt the French will take to the barricades.
Image credits: feature by Dmitriy Nushtaev on Unsplash; sign by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash. Content sources include Elsa Keslassy, “French President Sets Stricter Health Rules; Cannes Festival Unaffected by New Orders,” Variety (July 12, 2021); Joanna York, “France Covid health pass: Rules defined on teenagers, travel, masks…,” The Connexion: French News and Views (July 14, 2021).