More than 160,000 demonstrators took to the streets in France on Saturday to protest against the government's Covid-19 health pass policy, with brief clashes between largely unmasked protesters and police officers in Paris followed by wafts of tear gas that were reminiscent of the "yellow vest" turmoil of a few years ago.
Similarly, in cities across Italy, thousands of people protested against the government's requirement that, as of August 6th, they show a so-called green pass, an extension of the European Union's digital Covid certificate, to enter many venues.
And in Australia, 3,500 mostly maskless protesters against Sydney's monthlong lockdown clashed with police officers on Saturday, raising fears of a superspreader event that could add to the city's growing caseload.
There were also protests in Melbourne and Adelaide, which are under lockdowns, and in Brisbane, where there are no restrictions.
Protests against lockdowns are hardly new, but the European protests had a fresh element. They took aim against France and Italy’s new, semicoercive strategy to speed up vaccinations and keep a recent surge of infections in check: make social life unpleasant for those who refuse to get vaccinated, while stopping short of making the shots mandatory.
In France, presenting the health pass – paper or digital proof of being fully vaccinated, a recent negative test or recent Covid recovery – is mandatory to attend large events in stadiums and concert halls, and to enter the country’s cultural venues, including cinemas, museums and theatres. In Italy, the green pass will be required at the same kinds of venues.
A Bill currently being examined by the French senate and expected to be passed in the coming days will extend the requirement to produce a health pass to cafes, bars, restaurants and gyms, adding fines for establishments that fail to enforce the rule. A valid health pass will also become required for non-urgent visits to hospitals or retirement homes, and long-distance train and bus journeys.
Penalties and being fired
The Bill will also force health workers, firefighters and others – mostly those who deal with sick people or the older population – to be vaccinated by September 15th or face penalties up to being fired. And the current version of the legislation, which can still be tweaked by lawmakers, makes it mandatory to isolate for 10 days after testing positive for the virus.
French television showed that some protesters wore the trademark reflective jackets of the yellow vest movement that rocked France in 2018 and 2019. The movement was rooted in anger over economic inequality but also espoused anti-elite rhetoric and deep distrust of the government, directing much of its vitriol directly at President Emmanuel Macron.
The same spirit has animated the burgeoning anti-health pass movement of the past weeks, raising worries that a radical fringe of violent protesters could coalesce in the coming weeks. However, there is not the same level of public sympathy as the yellow vest movement commanded. Polls show that a majority of the country approves of Mr Macron’s strategy, and a record surge in the number of vaccinations shows that it appears to be working. – The New York Times