Health pass credited with turning around France’s Covid vaccination rate

Despite weekly protests, France's "Covid health pass" has helped turn the country, once a vaccine laggard, into a leader and has the support of most people ahead of presidential polls next year.

Health pass credited with turning around France's Covid vaccination rate
The health pass has boosted the French government's popularity. Photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

Seven weeks after it was announced by President Emmanuel Macron, French people are now used to being asked to show their credentials as they enter restaurants, bars, gyms or museums – and polls show a majority in favour of the checks.

The system requires everyone to prove that they have been either vaccinated or recently tested negative for Covid-19, or have recovered from the illness in the last six months.

“At the beginning, it wasn’t a given that it would work,” said Djillali Annane, a doctor and professor who heads the intensive care unit of the Raymond-Poincare de Garches hospital in the Paris region.

“People have understood it, it’s relatively well respected and it’s contributing undeniably in keeping the fourth wave in check for the moment.”

Though criticised as discriminating against the unvaccinated, it has given France’s efforts to innoculate its population a sustained boost since mid-July, with millions rushing to get jabbed in order to avoid regular testing.

Measured by the proportion of citizens who have received at least one dose, France overtook the United States and Germany in late July and early August and has surpassed Britain and Italy in recent days, according to official data analysed by AFP.

The country has given at least one dose to 72.1 percent of its population and, with Sweden and Finland, is vaccinating at the joint highest rate in the EU: the equivalent of 0.6 percent of the population receives a jab each day.

It still has ground to make up on Europe’s top vaccinators such as Spain, Malta and Portugal, where more than 80 percent of people have received a first dose, while Canada remains above France in the G7 grouping of rich countries.

Political boost

For Macron, who is expected to seek a second term in presidential elections next April, the generally positive response to the pass system has helped boost the government, polls show.

Between 64-77 percent of people support the pass, while confidence in the government’s handling of the health crisis is at its highest level since the pandemic began, according to recent surveys by the Elabe group.

Bernard Sananes, the head of Elabe, told AFP that the 43-year-old head of state remains a “fragile favourite” for next year’s unpredictable polls when his record on Covid-19 will be under scrutiny.

“He gives the impression of having come through the crisis so far, having had some difficult moments — but without leaving any space for an alternative, for someone to say ‘so-and-so would have done it better’,” he explained.

READ ALSO 6 reasons France’s Covid vaccination programme improved so dramatically

At the start of the year, when France made an embarrassingly slow start to jabbing people, many pundits saw Macron’s future as being on the line.

Other controversies such as a lack of masks at the beginning of the crisis have given ammunition to his opponents, including far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Ideological opposition?

The health pass system has provoked anger in some quarters, leading to street demonstrations every Saturday where opponents denounce the president for turning France into a “dictatorship”.

Some unvaccinated protesters have even worn large yellow stars, comparing themselves to persecuted Jews during World War II, a parallel that has been criticised by Holocaust survivors.

Partly because of these excesses, the protest movement has never drawn broad public support, unlike others during Macron’s turbulent time in office, particularly the anti-government “yellow vest” movement in 2018-19.

“For most people, getting your phone out at the entrance to a restaurant has become a daily habit. They’ve not followed the protesters into the realm of an ideological debate,” Sananes said.

The opposition is “a minority, but not marginal”, drawing support from around 20-25 percent of French people, he said.

With schools and offices reopening after the summer holidays, doctors are bracing for a possible rise in cases which are averaging about 17,000 daily.

The momentum in vaccination efforts is also expected to fade in the weeks ahead, while fewer checks and increased cheating could also undermine the effectiveness of the health pass system.

Epidemiologist Catherine Hill says that all the Covid-19 indicators are trending downwards – from infection rates to the number of deaths – but there are still around 19 million unvaccinated people, half of them children under 12.

“The vector within the epidemic is going to be unvaccinated people. There’s a reservoir of nearly 20 million of them in which the virus can continue to circulate,” she told AFP.

And whatever the short-term successes, “we’re at the mercy of a new variant”, she added.

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Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

The final composition of the new French government was announced on Friday. A new investigation suggests that historic rape allegations against a newly appointed minister were ignored.

Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

It didn’t take long for scandal to hit the France’s new government.

An investigation by Mediapart published the day after the final list of ministerial positions was announced revealed that two women have accused one of the appointees of rape. 

READ MORE Who’s who in France’s new government?

Damien Abad, the new Solidarity Minister denies the allegations and a police investigation into one allegation was dropped in 2017. But another could be about to open. 

Who is Damien Abad? 

Damien Abad is a 42-year-old son of a miner from Nimes in southern France who became the first handicapped MP to be elected in 2012. He has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints.

Prior to his appointment as the Minister for Solidarity, Autonomy and Disabled People, he was the leader of the France’s right-wing Republicans party in the Assemblée nationale

What are the allegations? 

Two alleged victims, who didn’t know each other, told Mediapart that Abad raped them on separate occasions in 2010 and 2011.

The first woman described meeting Abad for dinner after having met him weeks earlier at a wedding. She said she blacked out after one glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in a hotel bed with Abad the next morning fearing she had been drugged. 

A second woman who lodged a formal charge against Abad in 2017 said that he harassed her by text message for years. She eventually agreed to meet with him one evening. After initially consenting, she told him to stop – but her plea fell on deaf ears as Abad raped her. 

What does Abad have to say? 

The new minister denies the accusations.

“It is physically impossible for me to commit the acts described,” he told Mediapart – in reference to his disability. 

He admitted to sending “sometimes intimate” messages, but said he had “obviously never drugged anyone”. 

“I was able to have adventures, I stand by my claim that they were always consensual.”

Is he under investigation? 

The second alleged victim made a formal allegation against Abad in 2017. 

A subsequent investigation was dropped later that year after a “lack of sufficient evidence was gathered”.

Mediapart report that Abad’s entourage were not questioned by police and that the MP told investigators that he had no memory of the alleged crime. 

The first alleged victim flagged the abuse to the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics – an unofficial watchdog monitoring elected bodies – earlier this month. 

The Observatory has since brought the case to the state prosecutor, but it is unclear if another investigation will be launched.  

Who knew? 

The tone deaf appointment of Gérald Darmanin as Interior Minister in 2020 was controversial because at the time he was under investigation for rape. His nomination was met with street protests in Paris and elsewhere. Feminists accused (and continue to accuse) Emmanuel Macron of not taking sexual violence seriously. 

The investigation into Darmanin’s alleged crime has since been dropped.

Some will question whether the naming of Abad shows that lessons have not been learned. 

“Once again a minister  in the government of Emmanuel Macron accused of rape,” said Caroline De Haas, the founder of the #NousToutes feminist movement. 

The Observatory sent a message warning senior party figures in the Republicans and LREM about the allegations on Monday – prior to Abad’s nomination. 

France’s new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne denied having any knowledge of the warning. 

“I am going to be very clear on all these questions of harassment and sexual violence, there will be no impunity,” she said during a visit to Calvados. 

“If there are new elements, if the courts are summoned, we will accept the consequences.” 

READ MORE Who is Élisabeth Borne, France’s new PM?

The Observatory meanwhile claims it has been ignored. 

“Despite our alerts, Damien Abad who is accused of rape has been named in government. Thoughts and support to the victims,” it tweeted