Who are France’s anti-vaccine rule protesters and what do they want?

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Retired university professor Bruno Courcelle was among the large and diverse crowd that took to the streets over two consecutive weekends to protest the government’s new COVID-19 vaccine policies.

“I am against vaccination both for medical reasons – especially safety and weak safeguards – and political reasons because the vaccine is imposed on us,” Courcelle told Euronews.

“And if you are against the vaccine, you are logically against mandatory vaccination.”

Under a new law adopted by the French Parliament on Monday, vaccination will become mandatory for health workers while citizens will need to bring in a health pass for most public places, including restaurants and cafés.

Courcelle has launched an online petition to boycott all businesses applying the health pass, which has received hundreds of signatures so far.

“It leads to a society of generalised surveillance” and to “discrimination” between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, he said.

President Emmanuel Macron and his government say the new rules are needed to curb a spike in new infections fueled by the more contagious Delta variant.

But protests against the controversial measures have gained momentum, with 100,000 people marching throughout the country on July 17 and about 160,000 on Saturday.

Many protesters said they were simply there to defend individual freedom.

“On September 15th, if I’m not vaccinated I will lose my job. I have been threatened with getting fired. I’m here today in favour of the freedom to choose to get vaccinated or not,” said Céline Augen, a secretary at a doctor’s office at one of the Paris protests.

Others pointed to what they perceive as a lack of hindsight on the COVID-19 jabs.

“We’re still in the clinical trials phase. We don’t know if there will be side effects in the mid and long-term, whether it is on adults or children and teenagers,” mother of two Claudine Nasso Gomo-Joly told AP as she was marching in the French capital.

But other slogans and signs equated the new measures with Nazi atrocities, sparking anger and indignation. Some demonstrators even displayed yellow stars recalling the ones the Nazis forced Jews to wear during World War II.

Who are the citizens protesting France’s vaccine policies and what do they stand for?

Euronews explores the fears and aspirations of those who took to the streets over the past two weekends and the impact the new COVID-19 rules might have on the anti-vaccine movement.

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Who are the protesters?

The protests against the health pass drew a diverse mix of people angry at the government for various reasons.

Health workers

While a majority of French medical professionals have had at least one vaccine dose, some are resisting the government’s decision to make vaccination compulsory for all staff in health care facilities.

White blouses, therefore, featured prominently at the recent protests.

At the Paris march, a 39-year-old hospital laboratory worker said she might resort to buying a fake vaccination certificate to avoid losing her job.

A health care worker dressed as the Statue of Liberty called it an “act of violence” to force people to get vaccinated.

Several French medical doctors have played a prominent role in the anti-vax movement. Louis Fouché, for instance, an ICU doctor in Marseille, has founded ReinfoCovid, a group of medical professionals sceptical of coronavirus vaccination and other pandemic policies.

The group says it has received “a very large number of requests to join” and “our ranks are getting bigger by the hour” since President Emmanuel Macron announced the new rules earlier this month.

RéinfoCovid did not return Euronews’ request for an interview.

Far-right supporters

Thousands of people answered calls to take to the streets by Florian Philippot, a fringe far-right politician and former right hand of Marine Le Pen who announced earlier this month that he would run in the 2022 presidential election.

Courcelle told Euronews that he was a member of the right wing party Debout La France (‘Stand up France’) that has called for protests.

Le Pen’s much larger National Rally party has also voiced its opposition to the health pass.

“If you are a migrant who wants to enter France illegally, no problem, but the government will send the police to control the French who want to drink a coffee on a terrace? What world is Emmanuel Macron taking us to ?! ” said National Rally spokesman Sebastien Chenu on French television.

Reacting to the fact that some of the protesters wore the yellow star, Philippot said: “This shouldn’t be done,” but added that this “was not representative” of all protesters.

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According to Courcelle, the emphasis on the yellow star is just “one of Macron’s strategies to delegitimise the movement.”

Prominent French far-right figures have been convicted in the past of antisemitism, racism and denying the Holocaust.

Other fringe political movements were well represented at the recent protests. A 24-year-old royalist told AP news agency he was there to demand “the return of God and the King.”

Yellow vests

Following a long pandemic break, yellow vest protesters have returned to the streets to protest the government’s COVID-19 pass and what they see as a “health dictatorship.”

Several calls to demonstrate were issued on the movement’s Facebooks pages.

The movement began in the autumn of 2018 in protest against a fuel tax hike, which demonstrators said punished the poorest French people.

“Vaccinated or not, we are starving! Vaccinated or not, we’re losing our freedoms! ” chanted Jérôme Rodrigues, a prominent figure in the yellow vest movement at the Paris protest.

Beyond specific groups

Like the yellow vests, the mobilisation against the health pass has harnessed the power of social media to reach out to broad segments of French society.

On Facebook, the largest groups, “Anti health pass” and “No to mandatory health pass in France” gathered respectively over 175,000 and 98,000 members.

In one of the groups, a user expressed her doubts about her ability to get used to the restrictions imposed on the unvaccinated.

“I’ll have to prepare myself not to see a movie at the cinema anymore To stop travelling long-distance and take the train. To no longer go back to a shopping centre. Never go back to the restaurant. No longer go to a bar,” she wrote. “Will I get used to it? I’m having doubts,” she added.

According to a group of French sociologists who have studied vaccine hesitancy in the country, women tend to be more reluctant to COVID-19 jabs than men.

“It might refer to women being more concerned about the possible effects of an injection in their body, especially at the age of maternity and a differentiated socialisation making them more sensitive than men to long-term risks and more apprehensive toward rapid technological change,” the researchers wrote.

Social inequality also plays a big role in vaccine hesitancy, the researchers found.

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“We also found that people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, in terms of level of education, financial resources, and immigration status, were more likely to refuse the Covid-19 vaccine,” they wrote.

How will the new rules impact the anti-vax movement?

Vaccine-sceptics groups, such as ReinfoCovid, say their members have soared since the government announced the new vaccine rules last week.

But according to opinion polls, a majority of French citizens are in favour of the new health pass. 58% of French people approve the extension of the health pass to cafés and restaurants, while 66% are in favour of using it to access cultural venues.

Since Macron’s announcements earlier this month, vaccinations have spiked in France after a marked slowdown in recent weeks.

While France was traditionally one of the most vaccine sceptics nations in the world, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has dropped significantly since the beginning of the year. About 60% of the French population has now received at least one COVID-19 jab.

Courcelle says vaccine hesitancy is dropping “because the government is manipulating people with fear” with television networks as “accomplices.””Fear appears to be effective,” he insisted.

Authorities fear the anti-vaccination movement might be radicalising as opposition to the new vaccine policies grow.

On Saturday, two journalists working for public broadcaster France 2 were chased and beaten by protesters in the southern city of Marseille. A fellow reporter showed footage of the incident on social media.

Vandals targeted two vaccination centres in southwest France last weekend. One was set on fire, and another was covered in graffiti, including a reference to the Nazi occupation of France.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin on Monday asked police to strengthen the protection of elected officials after many received threats from anti-vaccine militants.

Alexandre Freschi, an MP from Macron’s party La République en Marche, posted some of the threats he received on his Facebook page.

“I am armed to the teeth. Be careful what you vote for on the health pass, you’d better not press the wrong button”, the anonymous sender wrote.

The constitutional council is due to rule on the constitutionality of the law by August 5.

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