OPINION: Majority of French have accepted the health passport with little more than a shrug

After a week travelling around France in an electric car, John Lichfield reports on the popular mood in France where - despite weekly demonstrations - the health passport is raising little protest from the majority.

OPINION: Majority of French have accepted the health passport with little more than a shrug
A shopping centre employee checks health passports. Photo: Pascal Pochard Casablanca/AFP

France is in a mood. But what mood? I’ve been travelling the length, and some of the breadth, of the country by electric car in the last week. I’ve been on holiday but I’ve also been asking questions and observing.

How are the French – the majority of the French – coping with the pass sanitaire (health pass), which restricts access to fun and long-distance travel? As the country approaches the rentrée and next spring’s presidential election, are the French in the febrile, even explosive, mood described by pollsters and opposition politicians?

Some of them, maybe.

I’ve lived and worked in France for 24 years. Some part of France – although not always the same part – is generally in a febrile and explosive mood.

My impressions are the following.

First, the pass sanitaire has been broadly accepted by the great mass of the French people. It is, in fact, working reasonably well.

The 200,000 or so people who demonstrated against it last weekend represent an extraordinary range of gripes and obsessions and special interests and some reasonable objections and reservations. They are not representative of France as a whole. (Pollsters say the protesters have circa 30 percent popular support, unchanged since the anti-pass movement began in mid-July).

READ ALSO Turnout, aims and support: Five things to know about France’s health passport protesters

Everywhere I went, I asked waitresses or restaurant or bar owners how the pass is going down. “Much better than we expected. People are playing the game,” said a waitress in Saumur on the Loire.

A few minutes later, a group of young men and women asked if they could eat on the terrace “sans pass”. The waitress politely refused. They politely departed.

In Aurillac in Cantal, a brasserie owner said that she feared that she had lost some customers. (Some restaurants report a 40 percent fall). 

“There are fewer young people in the evening. That’s certain. But I’m not against the pass,” she said.

“People need to be vaccinated. If that’s what it takes to persuade them, I’m in favour. What I dread far more is another lockdown. I couldn’t face that.”

My second observation –  a fairly obvious one – is that France has gone on holiday in France this year. There are many Dutch and Belgian visitors, very few Britons, but the holiday-makers in rural and mountain France are predominantly French.

READ ALSO Tourists return to France – but Brits are still absent

Compared to last summer, when caution was thrown to the winds, most people are observing social distancing rules. We visited a surreal market in a small town in Cantal.  Piles of local cheeses and saucissons; an atmosphere of festival and fun; and almost everyone wearing a mask.

We stumbled on the market as we were looking for somewhere to recharge the car. I have a Renault Zoe, with a nominal battery range of 300 kilometres. The range melts rapidly beyond 100 kph.  Unless you have a more expensive kind of e-car, you are obliged, more or less, to keep off the autoroutes and take the N and D roads.

This can be tedious. It can also be a joy. Leaving the autoroutes reminds you that France is a country of infinite beauty and undiscovered, or forgotten, local marvels, like our market in Cantal.

READ ALSO Discover 13 of France’s most beautiful villages, plus the place that the French love best

It also reminds you that France has become a country of a million roundabouts. Officially there are “only” 30,000 rond-points or “carrefours giratoires” . Actually, there are reckoned to be more like 50,000, with a thousand new ones springing up every year. Someone has calculated that half of the world’s roundabouts are now in France.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. When I hitch-hiked, and later drove, around France in the 1970s, there were almost no roundabouts. The D (departmental) roads and some of the N (National) roads were in a disgraceful condition. The warning sign “chausee déformée” (bumpy road ahead) was as much a part of rural France as fading advertisements for Martini or Byrrh painted on barns.

France’s secondary road system, even its tertiary road system, is now astonishingly good. The plague of roundabouts is a symptom of the billions of euros which have been spent in recent decades on major and minor roads outside the motorway network.

The original rural and outer-suburban Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) of 2018-9 were, in some respects, the precursors of the present anti-pass movement. One of their constant complaints was that taxes were spent on the big cities and the inner, multi-racial suburbs but not in La France Profonde.

This is untrue. More tax money is spent on rural France than is raised there – hence the new-found excellence of the roads.

One of the legacies of the great rebuilding of France’s rural roads is the roundabout – which also became the symbol and favourite haunt of the original Gilets Jaunes movement, which complained that rural France had been “abandoned”. That contradiction, so deliciously French, was seldom pointed out.

There is another deliciously French contradiction this summer.

The Saturday anti-pass marches are waning slightly but are still remarkably well-attended for the month of August. The great majority of French people (now 70 percent  first vaccinated and 60 pecent fully vaccinated) have accepted the pass with a shrug and got on with their lives.

Member comments

  1. Members question !
    Can a negative test result on paper replace the the pass sanitaire for entry into restaurants ?
    If so does it have to be dated the same day of the restaurant visit or how many days old can it be ?
    Thankyou for a definitive answer on the legal position , before we set out!!
    Thanks your always great publication
    Lesley Judd

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8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Taking a roadtrip through France is always a popular holiday option, but make sure that you're ready to take to the French roads.

8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Black weekends – as with all countries, France has certain weekends when the roads are likely to be especially busy. These generally coincide with school holidays, public holidays and opportunities to ‘faire le pont‘ – as well as the traditional ‘crossover’ weekend when the July travellers return and the August travellers set out.

There is a helpful traffic forecasting website called Bison futéfind it here – which publishes a calendar of days that are likely to be especially busy on the roads. Avoid red and black days if possible.

Fuel prices

It seems likely that fuel prices will remain high around Europe this summer, and France is no exception despite the government fuel rebate of 18 cents per litre.

The government publishes an interactive map of fuel stations and the prices they charge, so if possible you can plan your journey to fill up in the cheapest area.

MAP Where to find the cheapest fuel in France

Crit’Air stickers – if you plan on driving into or through a city, check whether a Crit’Air sticker is required for your vehicle. Initially the province of the big cities, more and more towns now require these. 

The sticker gives your vehicle a rating based on the emissions is produces, vehicles that get the highest ratings of 3, 4 or 5 are banned outright from some cities, while other cities limit their movement in days when air pollution is particularly bad.

The sticker costs less than €5 but must be ordered online in advance of your trip – here’s how.

Yellow vest – yellow vests in France are not just for demonstrators, they form part of the kit that you are legally obliged to have in your car. A red warning triangle and a high-vis yellow jacket must be carried with you at all times, although it is no longer compulsory to carry a breathalyser.

If you’re coming from the UK your UK driving licence is enough – there is no need for an International Driver’s Permit – but check that your insurance covers trips to France. Insurance ‘green cards’ are not required. 

Péages – if you’re driving on autoroutes you will likely need to pay, as most sections of the French highway are covered by tolls. When driving you will see warning signs that the péage (toll booth) is coming up and that is your signal to get your money ready.

The cost varies depending on which road you are on and how far you drive.

Usually you take a ticket at the first toll booth and then when you exit that section of road you drive through another station where you pay. The pay stations take either cash or debit cards – some but not all allow contactless card payments – and as you approach the pay station you will see signs with either a coin or a card on them, to ensure you’re in the right lane for your payment type.

Naturally the pay stations are on the left of the vehicle. If you’re driving a right-hand drive car and don’t have a passenger this can be a little awkward, so there is an option to buy a pre-paid radar device – known as télépéage – that allows you to drive straight through the péage.

Speed limits and alcohol – obviously you will need to keep an eye out for speed limits (which are of course in km/h not mimes per hour) but if you’re on the autoroute there are two different limits – 130km/h for fine weather and 110 km/h for bad weather.

As well as police officers doing speed checks, also keep an eye out for radars (speed cameras) which sit at the side of the road and are usually grey.

If you’re in certain parts of rural France you might think that drink-driving laws don’t apply in France, since unfortunately there is still a culture of drinking and driving in some areas.

In fact, however, France has strict limits on drinking and driving and they may be lower than you are used to. If you are stopped and breathalysed you face losing your licence and saying ‘well everyone else in the café had two glasses of wine and then drove’ is not a legal defence.

READ ALSO Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive laws?  

Fake police – Speaking of police, it is an unfortunate fact that every summer, some tourists fall victim to scammers who pretend to be police offices and demand cash for ‘fines’.

Real French police officers do stop drivers – either if they have been speeding or committed another driving offence or simply for a random check – but if you incur a fine you will be given a ticket that you pay later. Genuine police officers will not demand that you hand over money in cash at the roadside.

Priorité à droite – France’s most notorious road law is still in place in certain areas, but not everywhere. The priorité à droite rule (priority to the right) essentially means that you give way to the vehicle that is approaching from the right unless there are road signs or marking in place telling you to do otherwise.

In practice this means that on most major routes and in towns you simply obey the street signs, road markings and traffic lights to determine who has the priority.

It’s really more on smaller, country roads where there are no markings that priorité à droite applies, although it’s also in place on smaller roads in residential areas of cities and on Paris’ famously confusing Arc de Triomphe roundabout (although there are plans afoot to pedestrianise the area around the Arc).

You can read a full explanation of the priorité à droite rule HERE.

. . . and French drivers.

It pains us to peddle a cliché, but a lot of French drivers do live up to their international stereotype of being terrible drivers. Not all, of course, but certainly don’t assume that your fellow drivers will give way or let you join a queue of traffic. Also just because a vehicle isn’t indicating, that does not mean that it’s not just about to turn. Also, for the American readers out there – though automatic cars do exist in France, they are typically more expensive to rent and stick shifts tend to be the norm in France. 

Bonne route!