Covid health pass prevails over French vaccine scepticism in boost for Macron

France’s introduction of a controversial health pass has proved a success in dealing with threats posed by high rates of vaccine scepticism and the Delta variant – while offering President Emmanuel Macron a useful political card to play ahead of April’s presidential election.

A waiter checks a customer's health passes at a restaurant in Ascain, southwestern France, on August 11, 2021.
A waiter checks a customer's health passes at a restaurant in Ascain, southwestern France, on August 11, 2021. © Bob Edme, AP

The French government announced Wednesday that it would be extending the requirement for a health pass (pass sanitaire) to access most public spaces until July 31, 2022. The pass is required for anyone seeking to access long-distance transport or venues such as restaurants, cafés, bars, cinemas, museums and sports stadiums.

The pass consists of a QR code proving either that someone has been fully vaccinated, has recovered from Covid-19 in the previous six months, or has received a negative result from a PCR or antigen test taken in the previous 48 hours.

Further complicating matters for the unvaccinated, coronavirus testing will no longer be free in France starting Thursday. Those who have so far chosen not to get the jab will now have to pay for each test needed to enter public spaces.

‘A brave move’

As France’s vaccine rollout got off to a halting start early this year, the health pass emerged as a measure that would allow French society to return to a sense of normalcy. 

But many observers worried about the high rates of anti-vaccine sentiment in France, among the highest in the world. An Ipsos poll published in November 2020 found that 46 percent of French adults said they would turn down a coronavirus jab – compared to 21 percent in the UK and 30 percent in Germany. The previous year, a Gallup poll revealed that one in three French people thought all vaccines are dangerous – the highest proportion in the 144 countries surveyed.

This should have prompted Macron to tread carefully – especially since critics accuse him of being imperious and out-of-touch, a perception that helped fuel the 2018 Yellow Vest protests, a major crisis of his presidency.

So many political analysts were surprised when Macron unveiled the health pass in July. “It was a brave move,” said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester.

Indeed, protests erupted against the health pass – with more than 100,000 taking to the streets at the height of the demonstrations, which continue every Saturday across France despite dwindling numbers.

Some protesters and politicians have decried the health pass over civil liberty concerns while conspiracy theories about both the pandemic and the vaccinehave motivated many others. Populist firebrands on both extremes of the political spectrum have fuelled opposition to the pass: National Rally (Rassemblement National) leader Marine Le Pen on the far right cast the health pass at the outset as a “backward step for individual freedoms”; far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise) leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon denounced it as an “abuse of power”.

‘Certainly a success’

However, polls have repeatedly demonstrated that around two-thirds of French people support Macron’s health pass. Despite their visibility on the streets of major French cities over successive weekends in recent months, the measure’s opponents make up just 20 to 25 percent of the population, surveys show.

Most importantly, the Covid pass saw France’s vaccination rate surge. More than a million people made a vaccine appointment in the 24 hours after Macron’s July 12 announcement that a health pass would soon be required for public venues. Almost 10 million people got a first dose over the subsequent month.

When Macron first unveiled the health pass, only 54 percent of the French population had received one dose. That figure has since jumped to 75 percent, with France leapfrogging ahead of the UK, the US and Germany in the vaccination race.

The president introduced the measure amid an alarming new rise in Covid cases as the highly transmissible Delta variant took hold in France. That surge reached its zenith when the seven-day rolling average passed 25,000 in August – but sank to less than 4,000 by October 13 after the upswing in vaccinations had taken effect.

“The health pass can certainly be seen as a success,” Smith said. “It allowed the Macron government to reverse a very bad wave of Covid that was hitting France severely.

“There’s definitely a connection between people learning to live with the pass – realising that it’s a minor inconvenience that has led to a big sense of security and freedom – and the uptake of vaccinations,” Smith continued. “Experience showed much of the scaremongering about vaccines and the pass to be ridiculous – and in this way, the health pass helped defeat a wider reluctance to get a jab, except among a core of people for whom any measure would be a step too far.”

This effect is likely to continue as people have to pay for Covid tests starting on October 15, Smith added. “I think it will encourage the vaccine-lazy, in particular among young people; many will get the sense that it’s first and foremost useful to take a vaccine to get completely back to normal – especially heading into winter, when people spend more time inside.”

A boon for Macron?

While the health pass is above all a public health measure to boost vaccinations, it provided a political boost for Macron, bolstering his credentials as a strong leader ahead of April’s presidential election.

Although precedent demonstrates that shock twists to characterise French presidential elections, Macron is currently on track to narrowly clinch re-election by prevailing against Le Pen in the second round, according to Politico’s poll aggregate. French presidential elections consist of two rounds spaced two weeks apart.

Seen in this light, the success of the health pass in encouraging vaccinations – amid mass protests in which fringe, conspiracist figures have featured prominently – looks like a potential asset for Macron as he takes on the political extremes in the election campaign.

“The pass allows Macron to position himself on the side of economic recovery, science and indeed normality – while making opponents of the measure look like opponents of these things,” as Smith put it. “So Macron looks not only brave for taking this step but also astute, because it was a moment when he spoke for a large silent majority who wanted normality to resume. It was a successful and adult response to the public health crisis that made Macron’s political opponents look less adult – less useful even.”

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