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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Persuasion vs. Coercion: Vaccine Debate in Europe Heats Up


PARIS — The French capital is a hive of activity. European Union (EU) and United States (US) leaders are scrambling to strike a reasonable balance between combating the Delta variant of the coronavirus and restricting individual liberty. In France, president Emmanuel Macron has taken the unusual step of adopting both restricted vaccination requirements and widespread coercion.

His approach of ordering health workers to get vaccinated by Sept. 15 and informing the rest of the French population that they will be denied access to most indoor public venues if they are not vaccinated or do not have a negative test by Aug. 1 has prompted other countries, including Italy, to follow suit, despite the fact that it has sparked deep opposition in some areas of the country.

“You are creating a society of generalised control for months, if not years,” said Éric Coquerel, a lawmaker from the far-left France Unbowed party, during a tumultuous 48-hour parliamentary debate on Mr. Macron’s measures that ended early Friday with a relatively narrow victory for the president. The debate was the first of its kind in the country’s history.

The lower house voted 117 to 86 to support President Macron’s attempt to coerce the French into getting vaccinated by threatening to make their lives miserable if they do not. The lower house had to wade through 1,200 proposed amendments while defying accusations of authoritarianism and chaos from the hard right and left.

Europe’s problem is similar to that of the United States: vaccination rates that are insufficient for herd immunity, at around or just under 60 percent; an increase in Delta variant cases; and growing disagreements over how far people should be required to get an injection (or other injection).

In contrast, major European economies such as France and Italy are moving closer to making vaccines mandatory for everyone, whereas the United States has generally remained limited to hospitals and major health systems requiring employees to get Covid-19 vaccines.

In response to Mr. Macron’s measures, which were announced on July 12 as the only way to avoid yet another French lockdown, there have been both protests and an extraordinary surge in vaccinations, with 3.7 million appointments made in the first week following the president’s speech, and a record of nearly 900,000 appointments made in a single day on July 19, according to official figures. In this regard, his risky move has proven to be a success.

With the peak summer vacation season already underway, the French have reacted angrily to the prospect of having their leisure options restricted or eliminated.

The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, followed in the footsteps of his French counterpart. He didn’t pull any punches when he announced similar measures the following week. According to him, the decision not to get vaccinated is an appeal to death, not to live. He cautioned that vaccine resistance could also be lethal to others.

However, the extent to which Europe has moved toward mandatory measures has also prompted unease and concerns about the loss of personal freedom.

Defending rights advocate Claire Hédon, France’s government-appointed human rights ombudsman, warned this week that the parliament was acting with unjustified haste “given the extent of the blow to fundamental rights and liberties that is foreseeably being dealt.”

She cited the grant of “a kind of police power” to “public and private enterprise” as one of the most concerning of the legislation’s provisions.

However, she did not address the question of whether French freedoms include the ability to put other people’s lives in danger.

To enter restaurants and cafes, the so-called “health law” would require French citizens to present a health pass — known in Italy as a “green pass” — demonstrating that they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or that they have recently tested negative for the virus.

These establishments, many of which have expressed opposition, would then be required to enforce the rule or face a monetary penalty. They will not, however, be able to demand that prospective diners show their picture identification in order to match them with the health pass they have purchased. According to the government, this is still a privilege reserved for law enforcement officers.

In France, the draught law will now be sent to the Senate, with the goal of final adoption occurring within a week and enforcement taking effect at the start of next month.

The provision requiring vaccination for health-care workers drew particular ire in the National Assembly, which voted to repeal it. According to Julien Aubert, a Republican lawmaker from the center-right Republicans party, “you have gone completely insane.”

The concept of dismissing or not paying a worker because he or she refuses to be vaccinated is in stark contrast to standard French labour practise, which makes firing employees extremely difficult. Any attempt would almost certainly be met with legal opposition.

During the marathon debate, Olivier Véran, the health minister, who was photographed in Le Monde with his head slumped on a desk, responded that “the spirit of this text is certainly not to fire people or force them to quit, it is to encourage vaccination.”

In France, 22,000 coronavirus cases were reported in a 24-hour period this week, the highest number of cases reported in more than two months and the highest rate in more than two months. However, in the United Kingdom, where there have been twice as many new infections in recent days, the approach has been completely different.

Boris Johnson’s conservative government declared this week as “Freedom Day,” removing many of the Covid-19 restrictions in the process. The prime minister is banking on the fact that with 68.4 percent of the population having received at least one vaccination, Britain is prepared to take its chances with a virus that appears to be in the country for the foreseeable future.

Both Florida, where no business or government entity can refuse service to those who have not been vaccinated, and San Francisco, where all city employees are now required to be vaccinated, represent diametrically opposed viewpoints on the mandatory vaccine debate in the United States. Europe is home to the cities of London and Paris.

The vandalism of vaccination centres has increased since President Macron announced his strategy two weeks ago, according to reports. France has seen an explosion of anti-elite and anti-big business demonstrations, similar to those that characterised the Yellow Vest movement that began in 2018. Protests have broken out across the country.

For the same reasons that some Americans see manipulation and lies in the vaccination campaign — and indeed, in the very portrayal of influenza as a mortal threat — some French people see good sense and social responsibility where most Americans see good sense and social responsibility.

According to Sophie Tissier, a member of both movements and a former freelance technician for a television network, “there is continuity between the Yellow Vests movement and the anti-health-pass movement.” “They are challenging the way in which France’s anti-democratic political system operates.”

“If you are a member of the political opposition in this country, you will be accused of being a conspiracy theorist,” she continued. That does not describe me at all. All I’m doing is asking questions. We are witnessing the rise of a dictatorial regime.”

Positions are becoming more entrenched on both sides of the debate, and the rhetoric is becoming more ferocious. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, has suggested that requiring vaccination would imply depriving “at least half of the population of their right to life.”

He didn’t go into detail. Several opinion polls have found that 70 percent of Italians support the type of restrictions that France imposed first, and 40 million Italians, or two-thirds of the population, have already downloaded the green pass app to their smartphones.

The leading Italian virologist, Roberto Burioni, proposed on Twitter that people donate money to pay for anti-vaxxers’ Netflix subscriptions for the time when they will be under house arrest, trapped in their homes like mice.

Further protests are planned for this weekend in France, and it appears that the summer will not be a respite from political agitation as is usually the case. In the vaccine debate, the leaders of both the far right and the far left — Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon — have already made it clear that they see political opportunities.

The Yellow Vest protester Hugues Debotte, an unemployed chef who was also a member of the Yellow Vest movement, said Mr. Macron should be thanked for making a decision that “mobilised hundreds of thousands of people.”

“It is not the vaccination that is the issue,” he stated in an interview. “It is forcing us to do something that I do not want to do. “I prefer to say ‘No’ and maintain my independence.”

Mr. Debotte is hard at work organising resistance through a variety of online communities. “We are living under a soft dictatorship, and the oligarchs think we are complete moron,” he explained. “There is no longer a pandemic in effect today. We are well aware of this. No, we are not naive.”

It is clear that governments and health experts are at odds, and it is also clear that Mr. Macron will not budge. Mr. Véran, the minister of health, stated that “we have two options.” We must pass the test quickly, and we must pass it very quickly, or we will put ourselves at risk of another national lockdown.”


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