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PARIS – The French government, which last week introduced some of Europe’s toughest COVID-19 measures, has been forced to reverse some restrictions following the downturn in industries and street protests.
Among the new rules, French President Emmanuel Macron has sought to boost vaccinations by making proof of vaccination or immunity mandatory to enter cafes, restaurants and a range of other places this summer.
The program, which goes further than other major EU countries, was introduced to help break a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in France, driven by the more contagious Delta variant. On Monday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal warned that the increase in cases was “stratospheric” after the incidence rate in France rose 125% in one week.
“Our rates were low, but this wave [of infections] can go up very quickly and reach very high numbers, ”he told reporters.
The COVID green pass – a digital or paper certificate containing proof of vaccination or immunity – is expected to go into effect next month. Tuesday is seen as a test day for the pass which will be introduced in museums, galleries and for events with more than 50 people.
But barely a week after its announcement, the program is already under significant pressure. More than 100,000 people, many holding anti-vaccination placards, took to the streets on Sunday to protest the pass, raising fears the pass could become a symbol of discontent against Macron.
On Monday, the government made several concessions, including reducing fines for non-compliance, extending deadlines and changing rules for shopping centers. The government faces further hurdles as the bill introducing the new measures was presented to parliament on Tuesday. A group of senators have already indicated that they will refer the bill to the French Constitutional Council.
France’s measures are in many ways unique. Its requirement to present a COVID passport to access such a wide range of places, including restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theaters and shopping malls, goes beyond what has been attempted in most Western countries. The pass will also be required on trains, planes and coaches.
Meanwhile, UK’s Boris Johnson continued the planned ‘Freedom Day’, lifting most legal restrictions. Yet in a sign of convergence in the face of a wave of Delta-variant infections, the UK’s smoky ambitions have already been tempered. After initially ruling out COVID passports for home use, Johnson announced a similar program for English nightclubs and other crowded places from the end of September. Only proof of vaccination, not a negative test or proof of recent infection, however, would be acceptable as a passport of entry – a decision interpreted to encourage young people to receive the vaccine.
Removing COVID measures has been widely hailed as a way to restart the economy, but many UK businesses are currently crippled by staff shortages due to the number of people tasked with self-isolation. A Downing Street spokesperson on Tuesday insisted it was an “important tool” to stop the spread of infections and urged people to comply.
Changing rules and deadlines
The extension of the COVID-19 green pass in France was first hailed as a success for Macron after the skyrocketing vaccination appointments. 3.7 million people have made vaccination appointments on the popular Doctolib health website after the announcement of the new restrictions.
But the government is still tweaking the details with industry bodies, raising accusations of confusing improvisation and impromptu decision-making.
“They keep going back and forth, it’s unbearable and it’s the same story since the start of the epidemic”, explains Loïc Hervé, centrist senator and member of the opposition who is against the leave -to pass. “We know that there are [aspects of the pass] which are inapplicable, the rules are still not set in stone.
On Tuesday, the government was discussing shopping center rules with industry and local officials, after the government’s legal adviser, the State Council, said the pass was a “disproportionate” restriction. access to food.
The government has also been forced to reduce fines for non-compliance from € 45,000 to € 7,500 for businesses and is giving bars and restaurants more time to vaccinate their staff and introduce checks.
Despite the concessions, cafe and restaurant managers say the pass is impractical and intrusive as they are required to verify vaccination certificates against their customers’ identity documents.
“The measures are far too drastic, and it will crush the economy,” said David Zenouda, bar owner and representative of the catering union UMIH. “Some beach bars and restaurants have terraces with more than 200 seats, how are they going to get by?
Political opposition to the laissez-passer appears to be strengthening after the Left Socialist Party joined the far left France Unbowed and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally on Monday in opposing it.
Instead, they issued a statement calling on the government to make vaccination against COVID-19 compulsory in France “so that half of the population does not control the other half”.
The National Assembly and Senate are expected to review this week the bill introducing the COVID green pass and mandatory jabs for staff working in hospitals, nursing homes and clinics. It is also possible that the Constitutional Council will decide next week that the government is going too far in restricting freedoms.
But there could be more political issues down the road.
On Sunday, a motley team of malcontents, libertarians and anti-vaccines gathered in relatively small but unexpected protests across the country. More protests against the COVID pass are planned for next weekend.
The protests are already making comparisons to the anti-establishment yellow vests movement that was sparked by opposition to Macron’s fuel tax policy in 2018.
“The government must be careful [discontent] among the working classes, says Hervé, we cannot infantilize people, we have to talk to the country. It doesn’t work to yell at them.
The fear among government circles is that the laissez-passer will galvanize anti-Macron sentiment and draw opposition currents that have been kept out during the pandemic.
Nine months into the presidential election, this is something the president will want to avoid.
Esther Webber contributed reporting.
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