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‘Abolish it’: Thousands demonstrate against Covid health pass in France

Protesters march in cities across the country against Macron government’s health pass that is now required to access restaurants, cafes, cultural venues, sports arenas and long-distance travel.

Protesters shout and wave flags during a protest against compulsory use of health pass called for by the French government, in Lille, northern France, on August 21, 2021. (AFP)

Thousands of people have demonstrated in the streets of France again against the government’s Covid-19 vaccination policies amid concern from rights groups about anti-Semitic sentiment in the protest movement.

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Saturday’s protests were called for the sixth weekend in a row to denounce a new “health pass” system announced by President Emmanuel Macron that they see as unfairly restricting the rights of the unvaccinated.

Under the system, introduced progressively since mid-July, anyone wishing to enter a restaurant, theatre, cinema, long-distance train, or large shopping centre must show proof of vaccination or a negative test.

The law authorising it also made vaccinations mandatory for French health workers by September 15.

‘Macron! We don’t want your pass!’

Around 200,000 people have marched in previous weekends, according to Interior Ministry figures, while organisers claim the real number is nearly double that.

In Paris, four demonstrations were organised by different groups and over 200 protests were taking place elsewhere in French cities and towns.

At the head of the Paris march in the early afternoon, a few hundred people held up flags and banners with the word “Liberty” on them while shouting “Macron! We don’t want your pass!”

The protest movement has brought together conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, former members of the “Yellow Vest” anti-government movement, as well as people concerned that the system unfairly creates a two-tier society.

Far-right leader Florian Philippot, who has accused Macron of turning France into a dictatorship and likened the health pass to apartheid, was at the Paris rally on Saturday.

Majority in support

Despite the protests, polls have shown that the majority of French people support the health pass. Millions have received their first vaccine shot since Macron announced the measure on July 12.

The government insists the pass is necessary to encourage vaccination uptake and avoid a fourth national lockdown, with the unjabbed making up eight or nine out of every 10 Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital.

Since last month, France is registering a high number of infections — about 22,000 each day, a figure that has remained stable over the past week.

Over 47 million people in France, or 70.2 percent of the population, have received at least one vaccine shot and more than 40.5 million, or 60.5 percent, are fully vaccinated.

Anti-Semitism worry

The anti-health pass movement has been marked from the beginning by slogans and symbols that have been denounced by Jewish groups and anti-racism campaigners.

Some protesters have worn yellow stars similar to the ones that the Nazi regime forced Jews to display during World War II, leading to condemnation from Holocaust survivors for the offensive comparison.

Others have been photographed holding up signs with the word “Qui?” (meaning “Who?”), a coded reference to Jews who are accused of spreading Covid propaganda through the media and profiting from vaccination campaigns.

“What I find striking is how it (anti-Semitism) is recurrent and openly displayed,” the head of SOS Racisme, Dominique Sopo, told AFP news agency.

“During the Yellow Vest movement it was something expressed on the margins… now the people carrying these signs are not hiding and other protesters are not reacting.”

Left-wing newspaper Le Monde condemned the rise in anti-Semitic behaviour in an editorial this week, calling it a “poison for society, a danger for all of us.”

“Although anti-Semitism on the far-right is old, it seems to be encouraged at the moment by the rise in conspiracy thinking,” it added.

Tristan Mendes-France, a specialist on the conspiracy movement, called Covid-19 “an accelerator of anti-Semitism because we are seeing a tragedy unfold continuously.

“People who have fallen into the conspiracy theory movement online are reminded daily about their anger and their frustration because we’re always talking about the epidemic. It’s like rubbing salt in an open wound.”

Overseas crisis

Though disputed, the health pass system has been effective in encouraging people to sign up for vaccinations, with millions of people booking appointments in the days after it was announced on July 12.

Around 47 million people have received at least one dose, about 70 percent of the population, which is a higher rate than in Germany and Italy and only slightly behind Britain.

The most severe Covid-19 hotpots are found in France’s overseas territories such as the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as the Pacific islands of French Polynesia where the more infectious Delta variant has ripped through.

Polynesian authorities announced on Saturday that schools, restaurants and bars would close for two weeks, while a nightly curfew will be brought forward by an hour to 8 pm.

Tourists have been told to stay in their hotels on the islands where the number of infections has increased by a multiple of 14 in two weeks, according to the head of the islands, Edouard Fritch.

France as a whole reported around 22,000 new infections in the past 24 hours, health ministry figures show.

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