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Will the Canada-style anti-vax ‘freedom convoy’ really bring France to a standstill?

Organisers say that a 'freedom convoy' inspired by protests in Canada is set to bring chaos to French roads before converging on the capital this weekend - but how big is this event really likely to be?

Will the Canada-style anti-vax 'freedom convoy' really bring France to a standstill?
The Freedom Convoy has caused massive disruption in Canada. Photo by Minas Panagiotakis / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

What is it?

The Convoi de la liberté (freedom convoy) is organised by several groups who are opposed to Covid-related health measures such as vaccine passes and mask mandates.

Other organisers oppose petrol price increases and are concerned about the rise in the cost of living.

The intention is for five convoys to set off from different regions of France, primarily the south-west, south-east and east of France from Wednesday, February 9th, and Thursday, February 10th before converging on Paris on Friday. From there, the convoys will set off for Brussels, aiming to arrive on Monday, February 14th. 

Who is organising it?

There isn’t a single organiser, but groups involved include anti-vaccine and anti-health measures groups, as well as the remnants of some of the ‘yellow vest’ protesters and the hardline catholic group Civitas. No unions are involved.

How big will is be?

Protests in Canada have caused massive disruption, even blocking the border with the US, but at this stage it looks like the French event will be a lot smaller. 

Organisers are quoting figures of 290,000 people, but that’s just the number of members of the Facebook page advertising the event, and as we saw during the ‘yellow vest’ protests – which were also largely organised on Facebook in the early days – the number of people who actually turn up to demos is usually a lot smaller.

Recent protests against the vaccine pass and other health measures, some of which were organised by ‘yellow vest’ groups, have been attracting only small numbers.

In Canada much of the disruption has come from lorry drivers getting involved and blocking roads with their vehicles.

In France none of the haulage unions have supported the protests and there’s another issue – in Canada many truckers are freelancers and own their own vehicles while in France the majority of lorry drivers are employees so don’t own the lorry.

“So to get a vehicle that doesn’t belong to you, on a weekend, to use it for an obviously illegal action, that can get you into trouble,” security consultant Guillaume Farde told BFM TV. “It will probably not be truckers, but other people coming with their own vehicle, so it’s harder for the intelligence services to anticipate.”

What type of actions will be involved?

Different groups are calling for different things, some advocate a “complete blockade and disruption of food and fuel supplies” while others are calling for a more peaceful protest.

A popular protest method in France is an Opération Escargot or a rolling roadblock where a group of lorry drivers spread out and drive very slowly alone main roads, causing huge tailbacks. However this depends on having enough vehicles to operate the block.

Are the police worried?

Police on Thursday said they would ban vehicles of the freedom convoy from entering Paris. 

Those caught blocking roads in the French capital as part of an unauthorised protest could be sanctioned with up to two years in prison, a €4,500 fine and a driving ban or deducted points from their license. 

An internal briefing from the intelligence service that was leaked to French media earlier in the week says that the movement appears to be “far from solidly structured” but will nonetheless be monitored closely.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told BFM TV that there is “no information that tells us that this is being organised in proportions that would be significant”.

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POLITICS

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.

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