French MPs refused to examine a bill transforming the country’s COVID health pass into a vaccine pass overnight on Monday.
It was a surprise rebuke to the government who had hoped to push the legislation through as soon as possible.
If approved, the pass would restrict access to most public venues to fully vaccinated people or those who have recently recovered from COVID-19.
Crucially, it would stop people from obtaining a pass by showing a recent, negative COVID test, as is possible currently.
‘Slap in the face for the government’
The surprise suspension, which was loudly welcomed by the opposition, is likely to derail the timetable for the final adoption of the text by parliament, which was originally scheduled for the end of the week.
“It’s a slap in the face for the government,” MP Julien Aubert said, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left Insoumis party, welcomed the “correction” inflicted on Olivier Véran, France’s health minister
Véran had wanted lawmakers to debate overnight on Monday so that the bill could quickly proceed to the upper chamber.
The head of the ruling En Marche! (LREM) group, Christophe Castaner, blasted the “irresponsibility” of those who opposed the extension past midnight.
Parliamentary groups’ presidents are now scheduled to meet on Tuesday morning to agree on when the debate should continue.
A parliamentary source told AFP the bill could be in front of MPs again as early as Tuesday evening or Wednesday.
But the proposed tightening of restrictions has generated fresh anger from anti-vaccine protestors in France.
Dozens of French MPs say they have received death threats ahead of the debate on the new bill.
Several MPs in President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party have reported recent threats of violence.
Last week, the property of another French MP in Oise was set on fire and vandalised by suspected anti-vaccine demonstrators. LREM’s Barbara Bessot Ballot said at least 52 MPs had received “unacceptable” threats.
On Sunday, Agnès Firmin Le Bodo of the centre-right Agir party tweeted a graphic threat that had been emailed to her anonymously.
In the email, Firmin Le Bodo was threatened with decapitation by someone who said they had bought knives.
Another MP, Naïma Moutchou of the Horizons party, shared a similar threat which said she would be “shot in your home and have your head cut off”.
In response to the death threats, Véran denounced the “selfishness” of anti-vaccine protestors and pledged that those responsible for the threats would be punished.
On Monday, Véran also expressed his “unwavering support for elected officials” before the debate.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has added that police will strengthen protections for elected lawmakers.
“We will not yield,” LREM lawmaker Yaël Braun-Pivet told parliament on Monday, adding that France’s democracy “is at stake”.
A tense debate in the French parliament
Like many European countries, France has seen demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions in recent months despite improving attitudes.
France currently has one the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the European Union with more than 91% of citizens aged 12 and over fully vaccinated.
Since August, French citizens have had to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at many public venues.
But the new “vaccine pass” is being introduced to curb a wave of infections linked to the highly contagious Omicron variant.
The government says the new regulations will prevent France from having to introduce future curfews or lockdowns. A negative test will still be sufficient to access French health facilities and services.
Those found possessing a fake vaccine pass would face a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a €75,000 fine. Bars and restaurants could also be fined €1,000 for failing to check customers’ vaccine status.
In a tense debate in parliament, several opposition MPs have expressed their opposition to the new rules, with left-wing lawmaker Jean-Luc Melenchon saying the proposed law would create a “totalitarian, authoritarian society”.
Others have suggested that France should focus on other “weapons” to fight the virus — such as FFP2 masks and COVID-19 tests — or introduce measures only for those at risk from infection.
A protest was also held outside the French parliament building in Paris on Monday evening.
If passed as expected, the proposed bill will then go to the French Senate this week before it can be adopted and enter into force by mid-January.