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France forced to soften rules after coronavirus green pass backlash

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PARIS — The French government, which last week introduced some of Europe’s toughest measures against COVID-19, has been forced to row back on some restrictions following a pushback from industries and street protests.

Among the new rules, French President Emmanuel Macron sought to turbo-drive vaccinations by making proof of vaccination or immunity mandatory to enter cafés, restaurants and a range of other venues this summer.

The scheme, which goes further than other big 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, the government spokesperson Gabriel Attal warned that the increase in cases was “stratospheric” after France’s incidence rate increased by 125 percent in a 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 that contains proof of vaccination or of immunity — is scheduled to come into effect next month. Tuesday is seen as a test day for the pass that will be introduced in museums, galleries and for events exceeding 50 people.  

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But barely a week after it was announced the scheme is already coming under significant strain. More than 100,000 people, many of them waving anti-vaccination placards, took to the streets to protest against the pass on Sunday, raising fears the pass will become a symbol for dissatisfaction against Macron.

On Monday, the government made several concessions, including lowering fines for noncompliance, pushing back deadlines and changing the rules for shopping centers. The government faces more hurdles ahead as the bill introducing the new measures went to parliament Tuesday. A group of senators has already indicated they will refer the bill to France’s Constitutional Council.

France’s measures are in many ways unique. Its requirement to show a COVID passport to access such a wide range of venues, including restaurants, cafés, cinemas, theaters and shopping centers goes further than what has been attempted in most Western countries. The pass will also be required on trains, planes and coaches.

Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Boris Johnson has pressed ahead with 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 U.K.’s buccaneering ambitions have already been tempered. After initially ruling out COVID passports for domestic use, Johnson announced a similar scheme for English nightclubs and other crowded venues from the end of September. Only proof of vaccination, not a negative test or proof of recent infection, would be acceptable as a passport to entry though — a move interpreted as being aimed at encouraging younger people to have the jab.

The removal of COVID measures was widely hailed as a way to restart the economy, but many British businesses are currently hamstrung by staff shortages due to the number of people being instructed to self-isolate. A Downing Street spokesman insisted on Tuesday it was an “important tool” for stopping the spread of infections and urged people to comply.

Shifting rules and deadlines

The extension of the COVID-19 green pass in France was initially hailed as a success for Macron after vaccination appointments skyrocketed. 3.7 million people booked vaccination appointments on the popular Doctolib health website after the new restrictions were announced.  

But the government is still fine-tuning 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 been the same story since the beginning of the epidemic,” says Loic Hervé, a centrist senator and member of the opposition who is against the pass. “We know there are some [aspects of the pass] that are inapplicable, the rules are still not set in stone.”

On Tuesday, the government was discussing the rules for shopping centers with industry leaders and local officials, after the government’s legal advisor the Conseil d’Etat said the pass was a “disproportionate” restriction on access to food.

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The government has also been forced to cut the 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 controls.

Despite the concessions, café and restaurant managers say the pass is unworkable and intrusive as they are required to check vaccination certificates against the ID documents of their customers.

“The measures are far too radical, and it’s going to crash the economy,” says David Zenouda, bar owner and representative for the restaurant union UMIH. “Some bars and beach restaurants have terraces with over 200 seats, how are they going to manage?”

Opposition catalyst

Political opposition against the pass appears to be building after the leftwing Socialist Party on Monday joined the far-left France Unbowed and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in opposing it.

Instead, they issued a statement calling on the government to make the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory in France “so that one half of the population isn’t checking the other half”.

The National Assembly and the Senate are set to examine the bill introducing the COVID green pass and mandatory jabs for staff working in hospitals, care homes and clinics this week. It’s also possible the Constitutional Council will decide next week that the government is going a step too far in restricting freedoms.

But there may be more political trouble down the road.

On Sunday, a motley crew of discontents, libertarians and anti-vaxxers gathered in relatively small but unexpected protests across the country. More demonstrations against the COVID pass are planned for next weekend.

The protests are already drawing comparisons with the anti-establishment Yellow Vests movement that that was sparked by opposition to Macron’s fuel-tax policies in 2018.

“The government must watch out for [discontent] among the working classes,” said Hervé, “you can’t infantilize people, you’ve to talk to the country. It doesn’t work to shout at them.”

The fear among government circles is that the pass will galvanize anti-Macron sentiment and be a magnet for opposition strands that have been kept at bay during the pandemic.

Nine months from the presidential election, that is something the president will be keen to avoid.

Esther Webber contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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