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Why are French political rallies exempt from Covid-19 crowd limits?

As Covid cases soar in France the government has imposed limits on the size of large gatherings, but political meetings are exempt from this rule - here's why.

Supporters gather at a rally of far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour.
Supporters gather at a rally of far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour. In France, the right to hold political rallies is enshrined by law - meaning that Covid rules don't apply. (Photo by Stefano RELLANDINI / AFP)

Although the French 2022 presidential campaign has yet to officially begin, les meetings politiques (political rallies) are well underway. 

During these events, it is common to see party supporters on their feet, unmasked, screaming support for their favourite candidate or, in the case of some of far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour’s fans, attacking anti-racism activists. 

As France tops 200,000 daily Covid cases, this has raised serious concerns about the potential public health impact of these rallies, which are typically held inside. 

On December 27th, the government announced that it would introduce such capacity limits for all indoor events at 2,000 people and for all outdoor events at 5,000 people. But there was one important exception. 

“It is clear that these measures that I have announced do not concern political rallies,” said Prime Minister Jean Castex. 

Political parties can ask rally attendees to show a health pass – but are not obliged too. 

So why is that? 

The right to hold political meetings is enshrined in article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a declaration that was created and ratified in Paris. The European Court of Human Rights also enshrines the liberty to hold political meetings. 

The French government has argued that it would be unconstitutional to apply capacity limits to political meetings, which are protected under an 1881 law.

According to Article 58 of the current French constitution, “The Constitutional Council ensures the regularity of presidential elections.” This means that the freedom to hold political meetings could only be scrapped if the council says so. 

The government has drawn extensively on rulings from the country’s Constitutional Council, which has said that Covid restrictions cannot be used to ban political rallies. In May, it also said that the health pass does not have to be applied to political rallies – a judgement reiterated in November.

And it’s not just rallies, political marches and demonstrations are also exempt from restrictions, demos were specifically exempt from even the first, extremely strict, lockdown that France imposed back in March 2020.

So what will political parties do?

Although they legally can organise large rallies, many candidates recognise that holding potential super-spreader events would not be a good idea.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), has announced that it would respect the capacity limits imposed on cultural events during its political rallies ahead of the election – which as they stand at present means no more than 2,000 people at indoor rallies or 5,000 people outdoors.

The Parti Socialiste candidate Anne Hidalgo, centre-right les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécrésse and Green candidate Yannick Jadot all say they will all do the same. 

READ ALSO Who’s who in the race to unseat Macron? 

Candidates including Hidalgo have required supporters to carry a valid health pass to attend rallies – but others like far right leader Marine Le Pen and far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have categorically refused to do so.

Le Pen, Zemmour  and Mélenchon have also signalled that they will not respect the capacity limits that apply to cultural events – Mélenchon said that to do so would be akin to committing “liberticide”.  

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that the Interior Ministry and the Constitutional Council would bring together all political parties, “to reach an agreement on some rules that can protect us given the health situation.”

He said any new rules would have to take into account the “specificity of this fundamental activity – that is to say, the exercise of democracy”. 

Medical professionals have blasted politicians for allowing large political rallies to go ahead. 

“We are in the middle of an epidemic. If these meetings don’t follow the same recommendations as those for concerts, they will massively lead to further circulation of the virus, while at the same time, the Prime Minister is asking us to make an effort,” said Constance Delaugerre, a hospital virologist. 

“The virus doesn’t give a damn about whether we are in a political rally or a music concert, said Djillali Annane, head of the intensive care unit of Garches hospital, on LCI. “The risk of spread is the same”

French pop stars, including Julien Doré, joked that they would re-brand their concerts as political rallies in order to allow performances to go ahead.

The year 2020 saw postponement of the second round of polling in local elections.

However, the French Constitution also stipulates limits on the length of mandate for the president, which means that the presidential elections – scheduled for April – cannot be postponed without the approval of the Constitutional Council. 

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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