French President Emmanuel Macron imposed last week a wide-ranging set of mandates prohibiting unvaccinated people to attend restaurants, malls, cafés, plazas, museums, bars, hospitals, and other public sites. The measures, which have sparked demonstrations in the French capital, were implemented ostensibly to halt the possible spread of the Delta variant.
The measures will be effectively implemented through a digital vaccination passport program, with citizens having a QR code that could easily show if they have been vaccinated or if they have had a negative COVID test within the last 48 hours.
While the Macron government has said the measure is done in the name of public health, opponents have criticized the government’s infringement on the daily lives of millions of French citizens. With at least 100,000 protestors flooding the streets of Paris in protests against the restrictions.
The data on COVID in France
During his tenure, Macron led over an initially choppy and heavily criticized vaccine rollout, with France (and the rest of Europe) lagging behind the United States and the United Kingdom in the vaccination race during the first few months of 2021. However, the pace has picked up since, and 40% of the French population is fully vaccinated as of today.
The president, who is up for reelection next year, has said that while vaccinations “are not immediately obligatory”, the government’s objective is to “push the maximum of you to go and get vaccinated” as he has said that the country faces a “surge in the epidemic across our territory”.
Although Macron is correct that the rate of positive cases has been increasing over the last two weeks, with the french reporting an average of almost 8,000 cases by July 18th, the rates of both hospitalizations and deaths have remained in the downturn.
With hospitalization rates remaining at a 167 daily average (France has recorded almost 480,000 hospitalizations since the pandemic began) and with the 15-day average death rate remaining at 21 (France recorded 956 deaths at the peak of the pandemic).
Although there is a serious concern that the number of hospitalizations and deaths will rise over the next few weeks, the current COVID data in France is far away from the heights of the COVID emergency.
France’s (and Macron’s) vaccine skepticism
France has historically been one of the countries most skeptical of vaccinations in general, with a 2018 Gallup study showing that a third of french surveyed thinking that vaccines are not safe, which is the highest proportion in the world. COVID vaccines are no exception, with a December 2020 Ipsos study showing that only 40% of french would get a vaccine if offered.
Although Macron is pushing hard for his fellow French citizens to trust the vaccines and get inoculated against the virus. It appears that the French president has not acknowledged the role he himself played in casting doubt on the vaccines that have been proven to be effective against COVID-19.
Infamously, the french president claimed earlier this year that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” on people over 65 years old, a claim that was more scandalous as the European Medical authorities had just approved the vaccine that same day.
After those remarks, and amid a fractious conflict with the UK over the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccines, the confidence of the European citizens over the jab decreased dramatically, with 61% of french thinking that the vaccine was unsafe in a March poll conducted by YouGov.
Convincing the usually vaccine-skeptic french to get vaccinated would be a monumental task for any president, however, it is definitely not helpful when the president himself casts doubts on their effectiveness, even if he desires to present himself afterward as the most ardent supporter of the vaccination program.
The dangers of COVID passport schemes
In order to counter this trend, France has decided to impose draconian measures which could bring up the vaccination rate as quickly as possible. Between wooing or using the hammer to convince the population to get vaccinated, the government has chosen the latter.
If the policy objective was to get a boost on France’s vaccination rate, then it has been successful so far. The government has reported that more than 1 million French citizens making an appointment to get a vaccine against COVID after the President announced the set of restrictive measures.
However, these types of measures will also bring some obvious and tough questions about the right s of the government to mandate what can a citizen do or not in their daily lives.
It is worrisome, to say the least, that the government can prevent a significant part of the population to have a normal life due to their vaccination status. Unvaccinated french would now be prevented to attend any type of restaurant, board a train, go to a museum, or even enter a hospital. It is easy to see why some think this is an overreach of the government.
The measures leave us with many questions: when will these measures apply? Will they be in place only until we reach “herd immunity”? or will all french citizens be required to get a vaccine to access the blessings of a normal life, even if the risk of COVID has diminished in the near future? Is it okay for the government to have such a broad authority even as the emergency subsides?
Governments should do all that they can to get people vaccinated, after all, that is the best way to end this pandemic. However, this should not be done by draconian measures that infringe on people’s liberties.
Convincing people to follow science might be difficult and extremely frustrating, but that does not mean we should give up trying and disproportionately punish a substantial part of the population.