The Guardian view on French Covid pass protesters: attention must be paid
B y French standards, the protests which have now taken place across the country on four consecutive weekends have not been huge. On Saturday, an estimated 230,000 marchers filled streets and squares to oppose a new Covid pass which will be required from Monday. Two years ago, by comparison, nearly four times as many turned out to contest President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms. Polls indicate that a large majority of French citizens back the new regulations, which mean that visitors to restaurants and other public settings must show proof of vaccination or a negative test. The rules will also make jabs mandatory for health workers and those in some other professions.
Since Mr Macron signalled his intent to move in this direction last month, Europe has been following suit, although, in England, Boris Johnson has preferred to wait. Germany plans to bring in similar measures within weeks. Italy rolled out its “green pass” on Friday. The public health benefits of increasing vaccination rates and making social contexts as safe as possible are unarguable. Since the Covid pass was announced amid concerns over the spread of the Delta variant, France’s vaccination rate has boomed. Well over 60% of those over the age of 12 have now had a first jab. The constitutional court ruled on Thursday that the pass represented a “balanced trade-off” between public health concerns and individual freedom. Having generally taken popular opinion with him, Mr Macron is entitled to consider the policy a success. But there are good reasons for him – and other European leaders – to pay close attention to the nature of the ongoing dissent.
Conspiracy theorists and eccentric libertarians certainly populate the fringes of the anti-pass movement in France and elsewhere. But as the digital age extends its reach ever more deeply into our private lives, legitimate concerns over an intrusive surveillance society should be respected and addressed. And the discontent has shown that the kind of resentment and alienation that sparked political upheavals across Europe in recent years have not gone away.
The French protests have drawn support from the hard left, as well as the hard right. More broadly, they have galvanised the same disillusioned constituency that began a prolonged insurgency against Mr Macron’s rule in 2018. The gilets jaunes movement followed the imposition of a fuel tax rise, but quickly morphed into a general and sometimes violent challenge to established elites and centres of political power. The anti-passers, while focused on the theme of individual liberty, draw from the same deep well of suspicion and mistrust in the motives of the powerful. In an interview last week, an exasperated Mr Macron said the attitude of the demonstrators was “a threat to democracy. They mix up everything. A few tens of thousands of people have lost their minds to such an extent that they are capable of saying we live in a dictatorship.” But polls indicate that around a third of French people are sympathetic to the protests. A disturbingly large minority appears to have lost faith in the political class, as evidenced by the remarkable levels of abstention in recent local elections.
Covid, hopefully, will recede as a threat. But as states and governments attempt the vital transition to net zero carbon emissions, the buy-in and trust of all citizens will be essential as everyday life is profoundly disrupted. The French protests are a warning that this may not be easy.