Taking liberties: French fume at Macron’s vaccination push
In Marseille, president's coronavirus health pass isn't going down well with everyone.
MARSEILLE, France — As France rushes to vaccinate its population amid a surge in infections, President Emmanuel Macron is getting tough — essentially telling people to get the jab or forfeit a return to normal life.
It’s a strategy that has prompted waves of indignation in the country of Liberté, with protests bringing 160,000 people onto the streets across France last weekend. But nowhere is Macron’s tough-love recipe being put to a greater test than in Marseille, the Mediterranean port city that has emerged as a flagbearer for COVID skepticism.
High levels of poverty, a tradition of defiance against the state and the influence of controversial virologist Didier Raoult, who touted an antimalarial drug to treat the coronavirus, make the southern city fertile ground for discontent.
Near the old port, Robert Farina runs Le Vacon bar, a drinking hole that has maybe seen better days. Shirt unbuttoned, fists pressed against the counter, he quips that he is a “100 percent dissenter.”
“It’s a dictatorship,” he thundered. “Hasn’t Macron read what’s written on our coins? It says Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — what happened to liberty?”
As of August 9, Farina will have to scan all his customers’ coronavirus immunity passes as access to bars, restaurants and hospitals — as well as trains, planes and coaches — will be conditional on customers showing digital or paper certificates proving immunity or vaccination. Businesses that break the rules risk temporary closure and a fine of up to €9,000.
“I have to do it, or I’ll get fined,” said Farina, who reluctantly got vaccinated. “They will unleash their guard dogs — the police — to check on us. But how am I going to manage, serving drinks, checking people inside and out there on the terrasse?”
Some of Farina’s drinkers already have their passes, but others don’t. One mischievously raised a tumbler of his own “medication” — a glass of pastis.
But for the government, this is no laughing matter. A fourth coronavirus wave, driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, is hitting France hard, according to a government spokesperson, with the number of new cases hitting 19,000 a day, virtually double last week’s levels.
The vaccination rate in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, where Marseille is the main city, is the lowest in mainland France. According to figures from France’s COVID Tracker, only 57 percent of the population have received the first dose.
Some partly blame the influence of Raoult, who controversially promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cheap treatment for the virus. He has since come out in favor of the COVID-19 vaccine but is seen as contributing to an atmosphere of distrust in the region.
Fighting on several fronts
A silent majority, however, approves of Macron’s coercive measures. According to a recent Ipsos poll, 62 percent of the French are in favor of the immunity pass, and close to 70 percent approve of the president’s decision to introduce mandatory vaccines for health workers in hospitals, clinics and care homes.
But France’s battle to vaccinate the masses has several fronts.
Last week, the head of the country’s COVID-19 advisory board, Jean-François Delfraissy, warned that a fourth wave of the virus risked hitting the poor hardest, due to low vaccination rates among the rural poor and residents of France’s hard-up banlieues.
In a homeless shelter in one of Marseille’s inner-city neighborhoods, Anne Dutrey Kaiser and her team are vaccinating volunteers, many of them migrants who rarely see a doctor.
She runs a coronavirus outreach scheme, and battles every day to get people vaccinated. “It was like attacking a problem with a pair of tweezers,” said Dutrey Kaiser, who visits institutions and gets referrals from local medics. “Many people weren’t dead set against the vaccine, but were waiting for others to do it first.”
Macron’s announcement triggered a sea change in attitudes, she said, with more and more people taking the jab.
But there were still small setbacks. In one room, a woman told Dutrey Kaiser she only wanted one jab, not two. In another, a patient fainted, triggering a wave of panic among some of the volunteers.
Sometimes, even the social workers don’t want to be vaccinated.
“People should be allowed to choose whether they want to take it or not,” said Kala Ali, an admin staffer who works at the homeless shelter. “I wear a mask and social distance, I’m not a threat to anyone.”
Bitterly, Ali said she overcame her fears due to past illnesses and decided to get vaccinated so she would be able to accompany her children on outings.
A political gamble
At the Palais des Sports mass vaccination center in Marseille, there’s a steady stream of arrivals coming for a first jab.
In the wake of Macron’s announcements, vaccination appointments here jumped from under 1,500 a day to 2,500.
It seems Macron is winning the arm wrestle with the recalcitrant French. But at what cost? In the queue here, many complain they are coming under duress.
Geoffroy, a hotel waiter who didn’t want to give his surname, said the move has dented his trust in the president. “Macron promised he would not make the jab mandatory, and now, in effect, he has. I really don’t understand,” he said.
Macron’s political gamble is that the masses will be jolted into getting vaccinated and the anger and mistrust will fade.
And, with 93 percent of Macron supporters backing the immunity passport, according to a recent poll, it may prove to be not such a gamble after all.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@example.com for a complimentary trial.