France has endured three national lockdowns and its President, Emmanuel Macron, wants to stave off a fourth. Last week he introduced a health pass system to this end, with citizens soon required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to frequent cafes, restaurants, shopping centers and more.
The announcement resulted in an uptick in vaccinations — but also mass protests around the country over the weekend.
Over 100,000 citizens took to the streets to voice their anger over the new rules, according to the BBC. Some protested by wearing yellow stars on their clothing, often with “not vaccinated” written in the center, a reference to the means by which Nazis identified Jews in the ’30s and ’40s.
Holocaust survivor Joseph Szwarc condemned the comparison on Sunday at a ceremony commemorating anti-Semitic crimes committed in Nazi-occupied France. “I wore the star, I know what that is,” he said in comments translated by AP. “I still have it in my flesh, It is everyone’s duty to not allow this outrageous, anti-semetic, racist wave to pass over us.”
Having fully vaccinated 40% of its population, France’s leaders are now shifting their focus from acquiring vaccine supply to encouraging reluctant citizens to get vaccinated. A December 2020 poll found that only 42% of French people would get a jab if it was available to them, reported The Economist, though that number rose to 56% by late January when world leaders started publicly getting vaccinated. France has been hit hard by COVID-19, as only four countries — the US, India, Brazil and Russia — have recorded more cases.
The US is also fighting vaccine hesitancy. Over 99% of COVID deaths last week involved those who were unvaccinated, stated the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said last Friday.
Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for France’s government, on Monday critized the “absolutely abject comparisons” and said the government “won’t cede to a dictatorship of images and outrageous words”, according to the AP. Under the health pass rules, admission to “cultural and recreational venues” like cinemas and museums will require either a vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Cafes, restaurants, shopping centers, hospitals, care homes, and long-distance travel will be added to the scheme in August.
“Depending on the evolution of the situation we will undoubtedly have to ask ourselves whether to make vaccinations mandatory for all French people,” Macron said last week.
Other protesters over the weekend waved signs calling the health pass a “Health Apartheid,” comparing it to South Africa’s system of white rule where black and mixed-race citizens were afforded fewer rights until 1994. These signs echoed a comment by a French member of the European Parliament last week who, in a now deleted tweet, said the health pass is “Apartheid in the land of human rights.”
Protests over the health pass led to at least two COVID-19 vaccine clinics being vandalized, one of which was found on fire in what police are treating as attempted arson. But while the health pass drove over 100,000 citizens to publicly voice their opposition, it pushed far more towards vaccination clinics. Roughly 1.7 million vaccination appointments were booked in the 24 hours after Macron’s speech, reports Reuters.