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  • Michael Yue

France's Vaccination Passport at Play

On July 12, President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of a vaccine passport, a system many government officials have debated on creating. Despite grappling with their own vaccination effort for the better part of a year, thanks to the Pass Sanitaire—France’s name for the passport—France has become one of the most inoculated countries in Europe. Although it’s been a widely successful measure for eliminating the COVID-19 spread, it has not gone without political controversy among many French citizens and political commentators, as the political scene ramps up for an election later next year.

Photo Credit: EPA-EFE

France’s vaccination effort in the early months of the year paled in comparison to other similarly vaccine-rich countries like the United States, with only about 29% actually vaccinated by May of 2021. The slow rollout throughout the rest of the spring was mostly due to the French having the lowest levels of trust in vaccines globally, and the conspiracy theories that led to vaccine skepticism similar to the U.S. situation. Fears about the vaccine were only amplified after the failed rollout of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, with only about 40% of the French population intending to take the vaccine.

Meanwhile, Israel—a country that outpaced the rest of the world in vaccinations—became the first country to roll out a vaccine passport for its citizens beginning on February 21. The rollout of the passport coinciding with the reopening of its country in the following weeks was an incredible success for the country, being able to return to normalcy throughout March and into the spring.

For a vaccine skeptic country such as France, a vaccine passport like Israel’s seemed like a huge risk, something that would upend the political views of many. However, at the time, only about 40% of the French population were vaccinated, and President Emmanuel Macron was struggling to contain the virus in France after three lockdowns, the last of which started April 3 and ended up lasting until May 19. Macron faced a desperate situation with his country lagging behind the rest of the world.

So in July, Macron announced a health pass, the Pass Sanitaire, which is an app on one’s phone showing whether a user is safe in order to access leisure and culture events. The law announced on July 12, quickly passed through the French parliament and was made into law on July 26. While not mandatory, in order to access cafes, cinemas, hospitals, and long-distance transportation such as trains, one must be vaccinated, have proof they recovered from COVID-19, or receive a recent negative COVID-19 test. Additionally, all healthcare workers had to be vaccinated by September. “The situation is under control,” the President said in his announcement, “but if we do not act now, the number of cases will increase significantly and will lead to a rise in hospitalizations.”

Almost instantly reactions rattled from the far-right, and even the far-left. Former far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who ran against President Macron, was one of the most outspoken against the vaccine passport. She warned that the passport would be a “backward step for personal freedoms.” In contrast, the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon called the announcement “an abuse of power,” and called the measure a mere “illusion of protection.”

However, many of these political candidates have not proposed any alternatives to the passports, but are riding the wave of sentiment against vaccine mandates. Many of those speaking out against the vaccine passport are set to run against Macron in next year’s presidential election, mainly due to Macron’s top-down governing style that has drawn criticism from many of the same actors involved against these protests.

Nearly every weekend following the passport’s announcement, protests with over 100,000 people have followed out onto the streets of Paris and other major cities in France. A couple days after the passport was announced, a vaccination center was vandalized near Grenoble. Yet none of the protests or figureheads propose alternative solutions, mostly comparing the passport’s enactment to an act from a fascist regime, or raising concerns about a class division.

Many of the concerns come from a supposed rift of privileges between those who are vaccinated and those not. Most politicians, including Prime Minister Jean Castex, are observant and tolerant of the people’s right to protest and understand their concerns, believing that “there’s a perfect right to demonstrate and to be against the vaccine...but we don't have the right to use these motives to make antisemitic remarks.” On the other hand, Marine Le Pen is mostly riding the wave of these protests. Le Pen is not anti-vaccination, yet still “express[es] understanding for people who are demonstrating against the health pass.”

Despite the protests continuing for eight consecutive weekends, the vaccine passport has generally been a success for President Macron and for France. In contrast to the protests, nearly 3.7 million shots were booked the day after the announcement, and today, nearly 74% of France’s population have been vaccinated, compared to 64% in the U.S. and 45% of the world.

In general, the French believe the health pass is not that much of a bother in order to return to normal life, and protests in recent weeks have waned significantly. The protests are only a small portion of the population, and most have generally embraced the health pass and its restrictions. As a further push, Macron announced on October 15 that for those unwilling to vaccinate, the health pass would require those who aren’t vaccinated to pay for COVID tests. Overall, Macron’s gamble on the health pass may have been a success, as his re-election campaign begins next year.

France has proven to have adapted well and brought back tourists through its health pass as well. Tourists to France must be vaccinated as of September 12 and on September 30, the passport was extended to teenagers beginning in September, and the government plans to extend the passport’s temporary measure to summer of next year. Some major French attractions, like the ski resorts in the Alps, are hesitant about this plan that could spell disaster for their industries as it had been in the previous year.

France’s vaccine passports have been a success for both Macron and the French government. As every one of his action are scrutinized by the public before next year's election, the creation of a vaccine passport is a case study on both the politics of France, as well as how vaccine passports can be successful in a vaccine-skeptic country, which may allow other countries to speed up their vaccination efforts.

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