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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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POLITICS

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   

Unpopular

Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.

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