OPINION: Macron’s health passport is an unsung triumph for France

President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to deprive the unvaccinated of fun and long-distance travel has been a triumph – but a largely unsung triumph, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron's health passport is an unsung triumph for France
Emmanuel Macron has received few garlands for his decision to push the health passport. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Yes, street protests against the “health pass” persist and grow. Yes, they are continuing in the month of August, traditionally a political no-go-zone.

No, they should not be dismissed, even though three-quarters of the protesters are the usual anti-Macrons and anti-everythings.

READ ALSO Protests over the health passport will continue, but this is not a new ‘yellow vest’ moment 

Demonstrations are ongoing, with more planned for Saturday. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

Let us recall, however, why Macron felt obliged to swallow his words and ask parliament to extend the health pass to restaurants, bars, cafés and long-distance trains and buses almost one month ago.

When he made the announcement on July 12th, the French vaccination programme was flagging. After a slow start and a booming spring and early-summer, first-vaccinations had slumped to less than 170,000 a day.

The fourth “Delta” wave of Covid-19 threatened to cut a swathe through the unvaxxed part of the French population.

The real reason for imposing the health pass was not to “segregate” the vaccinated from the unvaccinated for health reasons. The real reason was not to slow the spread of the Delta variant by making restaurants and bars off-limits to the vax-shy, vax-lazy or vax-resistant.

The health-pass was imposed to re-boot the French vaccine programme. The intention was to jog, force or coerce people to get vaccinated –  to make vaccination not exactly compulsory but essential if you wanted to lead a normal life.

EXPLAINED When and where you need a health passport in France

Let’s leave aside for a moment the political, moral or philosophical arguments against this decision.

In terms of its intended consequences, the health-pass has been an enormous success. Long before it took effect on Monday French people had flocked to vaccination centres or pharmacies or doctors’ surgeries.

Since Macron’s TV address which announced the extension of the pass on July 12th, over 9 million people – 9,345,380 as of Tuesday night – had received first injections against Covid-19. This is an average of 322,275  a day, almost double the rate before Macron spoke.

The daily rate of first doses has slumped again in the last week but is still averaging 280,000 a day. France, as of last night, had first-vaxxed 45,289,566 people over the age of 12  – around 78 percent of adolescents and adults. If you exclude the 12 to 17 year olds, the first-vax rate for French adults is now almost 81 percent.

At the present rate of progress, France will overtake the UK total of first vaccinations in about one week’s time.

The population of the two countries is almost identical at about 67 million.

The UK has given first doses to 47,091,889 people but that is now increasing at a rate of only 32,500 a day. The French total is rising by nine times that daily rate – and  is forecast to increase again from next Monday by  Doctolib, the medical booking site.

I got in trouble with British vaccine nationalists when I first pointed a couple of weeks ago that the French first-vax total was on course to overtake the UK by mid-August. In fact, several other EU countries have since already overtaken Britain in terms of jabs-per-thousand people.

My intention is not to denigrate the UK vax programme which was wonderful in its early months. Britain is still reaping the benefits of having vaccinated so many people so quickly, even if the daily first dose rate has now slowed to a trickle with around one third of British 18-29’s still unvaccinated.

(The French total, it is true, also includes 12 to 17 year olds. But why have adolescents been left unprotected in the UK for so long?)

My reason for making the comparison with the UK are twofold. First to counter the exaggerated attacks on the French and EU vax roll-outs in the UK media earlier this year. Secondly, to demonstrate the “success” of the French health pass.

Most domestic media commentary in France has focused on the Saturday protests. The impact of the health pass  on the vax programme – and the impact of the vax programme on the Covid pandemic – has not been entirely ignored. But its triumphs have been pushed into the background.

The Delta wave is now upon us. The number of cases may already have crested. But acute cases and deaths are still rising sharply. Over 80 percent of the more than 1,500 people now in acute care are unvaccinated.

Two maps published in recent days are worth considering side-by-side. The first (on the left, with the highest incidence rates in purple) by independent website Covidtracker, shows the current incidence rate for the Delta wave, département by département. The second (on the right with the lowest vaccination rates in red), based on a  study for the French health insurance system, shows where the rates of  vaccination in France are highest and lowest.

The match between high-incidence and low-vaccinaton  – all along the Mediterranean coast, in the poorer Paris and Lyon suburbs, in parts of the south west  and a few islands elsewhere – is not exact but it is striking.

Whatever the Saturday marchers may say, vaccination works

Macron made a politically dangerous decision to revive the French vax programme. He may or may not pay a political price for that decision in the presidential elections next April.

He may also benefit. Over 60 percent of French people tell pollsters that they approve of the health pass.

France could reach, on present trends,  90 percent or so of first vaccinated adults by mid-September. If the Delta wave has passed by then, Macron could abandon the health pass (always meant to be short-lived) and announce that it has been a huge success.

What can be stated confidently is that the health pass – and therefore Macron – have already saved many hundreds of French lives.

Member comments

  1. Very good article. Thanks for you forthright clarity and analysis. I especially like:

    “The real reason was not to slow the spread of the Delta variant by making restaurants and bars off-limits to the vax-shy, vax-lazy or vax-resistant.

    “The health-pass was imposed to re-boot the French vaccine programme. The intention was to jog, force or coerce people to get vaccinated – to make vaccination not exactly compulsory but essential if you wanted to lead a normal life.”

  2. Maybe and probably thousands of lives were saved. This is an incredible achievement and I applaud the government’s effort on this. Can you imagine such a thing happening in the USA with the stupidity of the right wing anti vaccine element there.

  3. As a faithful client of The Local I would like to see a little more balance in reporting the issue of the Passe Sanitaire: this is an extreme measure which discriminates against people on the basis of disclosure of private health information and puts in place a tracking system to rival China. Whatever the perceived advantages of such a campaign of manipulation of the populous, it is setting an alarming precedent in terms of human rights and basic equality and freedom. I am not happy to join in a good chortle denigrating ‘stupid’ people, it is a delicate issue and individuals can have personal and painful reasons for making choices about health including this type of vaccine for this type of disease. It is very clearly possible to contract and transmit Delta variant with the existing vaccines (more figures will no doubt emerge in time but a vaccinated person who contracts Delta is just as contagious as an unvaccinated one). It is clearly not a black and white medical or moral issue. None of us can rest easy on the moral high ground of the café terrace knowing we never, wittingly or unwittingly, harm another person through our behaviour choices or allow ourselves to grow smug in the knowledge that all the ‘bad stuff’ is the fault if the other people, the ones we think are stupid. As I say looking forward to more balance, more sensitivity and more kindness too 🙂

    1. I have the app and my pass sanitaire. What kind of « private health information «  does it contain other than my vaccination track record ?
      I don’t need more balance or kindness that the author shows in his article. Maybe the criticism should be directed towards the like of the Telegraph or similar publications in Uk and France.. Well done the macron government and the health care pros.

      1. Hallo, thank you for replying to my comment, I can see you have not been touched by anything I say and feel comfortable with your own opinion. My point was about a call for balance surrounding this extremely significant event we are going through in France, and I would like now to add a call for journalists to walk alongside the people who demonstrate against’ a health dictatorship, to try to understand why so many French people, of all ages, politically defined in different ways or not at all, in the country of Liberté Fraternité and Équalité, are walking together chanting ‘Liberté’. Why do they feel so strongly about something that seems to you sensible and unproblematic , even laudable? I would like journalism to allow us as readers to challenge our opinions and invite us to deepen and widen our understanding, to stimulate debate and further inquiry. This is especially important for us as expats as we are bound we can’t help but view things through the lens of our own culture and native countries. I really do appreciate the condensing of news relevant to expats that The Local offers, but on an issue like this I am looking for more depth and balance than the practical implications for me and my expat friends,

        1. Cathy, you are speaking of balance, and Liberté, where the reality is far more simple: will it be 120 000 dead, or 130 000, or 150 000, or 180 000, or … . What is your prefered number? Is this the time you want to shout Liberté? Vaccination in this situation is not a matter of individual choice, it is a matter of common interests of long term health for many thousands of people and of survival for some, and getting to a more or less normal life for all of us. I have no understanding or even interest in understanding for those who do not consider that but go out in the street and shout ther Liberté. No room for such sensitivies in this case.

          1. Hallo kasza.artur
            First of all please avoid personal accusations about my having a ‘preferred number ‘ of people I want to see dead, I don’t want anyone to suffer or die from this disease, I did not bring it into the world, nothing in my comments merits such a personal accusation, I asked only for more balance in reporting. The idea is that IF as a reader you hear many viewpoints THEN you can make up your mind on the issue. So under your argument would you be ok about being forced into other behaviours for the ‘common interests of long-term health for many thousands of people and of survival for some’. Let”s take pollution for example, killing hundreds of thousands of people per year in our own back yard. Happy that the Government removes your car/vehicles and makes you walk? Now what about poverty, inequality, exploitation, lack of education and fresh water, starvation, war…shouldn’t you be forced to give up a percentage of your bank account for the common good? Would you be arguing you should lose your freedom over your money, your body, your possessions, and give it to the State or any other authority to decide what is good for for ‘everyone’ rather than what is good for you? Why are so so keen to do this with vaccines, and only vaccines, what is so special about the human body and confidential medical decisions in the case of vaccines that make it ‘not a matter of individual choice’ for you? Perhaps if you had been exposed to more balanced reporting you would be able to show some sensitivity to people who are not able to accept this vaccine, who see and foresee dangerous precedents in the behaviour of the Government, because you would actually have listened to people and their individual stories, and you would have understood that there are other dangers to human wellbeing than Covid, rather than reducing us all to statistics in a very black and white impoverished view that does not take into account the complex realities of this situation at all.

      2. The journalism we are experiencing during this covid-pandemic is often very one sided, showing how dependent the media is nowadays on being in line with Government, or journalists on being in line with their chief-editors. It’s scary. John Lichfield, as a journalist, should know and try better to stick to journalistic ethics of being somewhat neutral if not critical of what is going on. It’s downright fascism to be discriminating against people the way Governments are doing it right now and journalism should not be advocating this in any way!!!

  4. I have been critical of John Lichfield in the past but this is a decent article. The key figure to compare between nations is, of course, second vaccinations rather than first but I agree that Macron has made a good call. Vaccines save lives; lockdowns don’t – they merely stop transmission. So maybe Macron is making some ground towards redressing that terrible and tragically influential comment that the Astra Zeneca vaccine was “Quasi-ineffectual”. Now he knows that the promotion of vaccination is core to re-establishing ‘normal’ life and re-booting the economy, and is implementing policy accordingly. Good.

    1. Macron has been incredibly brave and courageous in essentially requiring everyone to get the vaccine. And unless you have some medical problems that prevents it, Getting the vaccine is a moral imperative. Individuals who do not get it are endangering others. I salute him and wish other world leaders were just as brave. Thank you for this excellent article.

      1. Other world leaders have not needed to coerce people into taking the vaccine because they didn’t undermine the vaccines in the first place.

  5. “If the Delta wave has passed by then, Macron could abandon the health pass (always meant to be short-lived) and announce that it has been a huge success.”

    From his profile picture I wouldn’t guess Mr. Lichfield was born yesterday, but his breathtaking naivete argues otherwise.

    1. “Abandonment”: The Health Pass requirements expire in November (15th, as I recall), unless extended by Parliament.
      “Success”: President Macron was very clear and explicit when the measures were announced, it was to increase the number of fully-vaccinated people. At the time, only around 40% were (fully-)vaccinated, and the vaccination rate was in free-fall. The very first week after the measures were announced, about 4m people registered to be vaccinated, and now about 60% are fully-vaccinated.

      1. Having not been born yesterday myself, I recall another occasion when Macron was very clear and explicit: “Je l’ai dit, je le répète : le vaccin ne sera pas obligatoire.”

        1. First, we would appreciate relevant comments, not stupid ones. Second, vacciantion is still not compulsory for people other than the medical staff.

  6. I consider The Local to do a good job in keeping its readers informed about everyday life for francophones in France and beyond. I assume this counts as “balanced” reporting. John L contributes to this from time to time e.g the day to day effects of the Brexit implementation (shortages in M&S stores!), or his experience of making a long journey in an EV.
    However his piece on President Macron and the vaccination campaign was clearly marked OPINION. This is standard newspaper practice and exposes readers to a deliberately biased point of view to either challenge or support different readers’ views.
    The best way to get a deep and wide range of views to provide the “balance “ you seek is probably to read Le Monde, Liberation, and Le Figaro.
    At least the opening comments from Cathy et al have got us all going on the topic which, in my view., was well spoken for by Lyn McBride. Thanks all 👏

  7. Suffering endless lawsuits, Guo Wengui faces his Black July
    The little tricks of New Gettr and Gclub cannot resist the judicatory storm

    Here comes the big news. The Cheater Guo claims that he will take nine times to testify and appear in the court more than a dozen times In the scorching July.

  8. What are the French rules for an American (me) or British (wife) passport holder who is fully vaccinated with an American CDC vaccination certificate, and is a legal resident of Germany? Can they visit France as a tourist? We are retirees living in Germany.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.