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PARIS – The French government, which last week put some of Europe’s toughest measures against COVID-19, was forced to lift some restrictions after a backlash from industries and street protests.
Under the new rules, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to speed up vaccinations by making vaccination or immunity certification mandatory for entering cafes, restaurants and a number of other places this summer.
The program, which extends beyond other major EU countries, was launched to break a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in France fueled by the more contagious Delta variant. On Monday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal warned that the increase in cases was “stratospheric” after France’s incidence rate rose 125 percent in a week.
“Our prices were low, but this wave [of infections] can rise very quickly and reach very high numbers, ”he told reporters.
The COVID Green Pass – a digital or paper certificate that contains proof of vaccination or immunity – is scheduled to go into effect next month. Wednesday is the test day for the pass, which is introduced in museums, galleries and cinemas for 50 people or more.
But barely a week after the announcement, the program is already coming under considerable pressure. More than 100,000 people, many of them with anti-vaccination posters, took to the streets on Sunday to protest the pass, fearing that the pass could become a symbol of discontent against Macron.
On Monday, the government made several concessions, including lowering fines for non-compliance, postponing deadlines and changing rules for shopping malls. The government faces further hurdles when the bill introducing the new measures was presented to parliament on Tuesday. A group of senators has already announced that they will forward the bill to the French Constitutional Council.
France’s actions are unique in many ways. The requirement to show a COVID passport to gain access to such a wide range of venues including restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theaters and shopping malls is beyond what has been tried in most western countries. The pass is also required on trains, airplanes and coaches.
Meanwhile, the British Boris Johnson has pushed ahead with the planned “Freedom Day” and lifted most of the legal restrictions. However, as a sign of convergence in the face of a wave of Delta variant infections, the UK’s buccaneer ambitions have already been dampened. After Johnson initially banned COVID passports for domestic use, Johnson announced a similar program for English nightclubs and other crowded venues starting in late September. However, just proof of vaccination, not a negative test or evidence of recent infection, would be acceptable as a passport – a move that is interpreted as encouraging younger people to get vaccinated.
The lifting of the COVID measures has been widely hailed as an opportunity to revitalize the economy, but many UK businesses are currently facing staff shortages as many people have been instructed to self-isolate. A Downing Street spokesman on Tuesday insisted it was an “important tool” to stop the spread of infection and urged people to abide by it.
The extension of the COVID-19 Green Pass in France was initially hailed as a success for Macron after vaccination dates skyrocketed. 3.7 million people booked vaccination appointments through the popular Doctolib health website after the new restrictions were announced.
But the government is still in the process of negotiating the details with industry bodies and is making allegations of confusing improvisation and spontaneous decision-making.
“They keep walking back and forth, it’s unbearable and it’s been the same story since the epidemic began,” says Loic Hervé, a centrist senator and oppositionist who is against the passport. “We know there are some [aspects of the pass] which are inapplicable, the rules are still not set in stone. “
On Tuesday, the government discussed shopping malls rules with industry leaders and local officials after the government’s legal adviser, the Conseil d’Etat, said the pass was a “disproportionate” restriction on food access.
The government has also been forced to cut fines for non-compliance from 45,000 euros to 7,500 euros for businesses and gives bars and restaurants more time to vaccinate their employees and introduce controls.
Despite the concessions, cafe and restaurant managers consider the passport to be unusable and intrusive as they have to compare vaccination certificates with their customers’ identification documents.
“The measures are far too radical and will bring the economy to collapse,” says David Zenouda, bar owner and representative of the restaurant union UMIH. “Some bars and beach restaurants have terraces with over 200 seats, how should you deal with that?”
Political opposition to the pass appears to be building after the left-wing Socialist Party joined far-left France Unbowed and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally on Monday to fight back.
Instead made a statement urged the government to make the COVID-19 vaccination compulsory in France “so that half of the population does not check the other half”.
The National Assembly and Senate will be reviewing the draft law introducing the COVID Green Pass and mandatory vaccinations for employees in hospitals, nursing homes and clinics this week. It is also possible that the Constitutional Council will decide next week that the government goes a step too far in restricting freedoms.
But there could be more political problems.
On Sunday, a colorful group of discontented, libertarian and anti-Vaxxers gathered for relatively small but unexpected protests across the country. Further demonstrations against the COVID pass are planned for the coming weekend.
The protests are already making comparisons with the anti-establishment yellow vests movement that was sparked in 2018 by opposition to Macron’s gasoline tax policy.
“The government has to be careful” [discontent] among the working class, ”said Hervé,“ you can’t infantilize people, you have to talk to the country. It doesn’t work to yell at them. “
The fear in government circles is that the pass will fuel anti-Macron sentiment and be a magnet for opposition strands that have been kept in check during the pandemic.
Nine months before the presidential election, the president wants to avoid that.
Esther Webber contributed to the coverage.
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