Over 160,000 demonstrators took to the streets in France on Saturday to protest the government’s Covid-19 health pass policy, with brief clashes between protesters and police officers in Paris followed by wafts of tear gas that were reminiscent of the Yellow Vest turmoil of several years ago.
Presenting the health pass — paper or digital proof of being fully vaccination, a recent negative test or recent Covid-19 recovery — is mandatory to attend large events in stadiums and concert halls in France, and to enter its cultural venues, including cinemas, museums and theaters.
The interior ministry issued the count of protesters against the requirement marching in Paris, Marseille, Montpellier and over a dozen other French cities, some chanting “freedom” and carrying signs accusing the government of imposing a “dictatorship” that discriminates between its citizens. By official counts, over 100,000 people objecting to the passes demonstrated around the country last week.
France is one of several European countries that recently shifted to a new, semi-coercive 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.
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 rides.
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 Sept. 15 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 show that it appears to be working.
The marches on Saturday were mostly calm, but nine people were arrested in Paris after some demonstrators threw bottles and clashed with riot police officers, who fired water cannons and tear gas in response, including on the Champs-Élysées, a broad avenue on which Yellow Vest protests repeatedly converged in their heyday. In Marseille, a TV crew covering a demonstration was booed and chased away.
In Australia, 3,500 mostly maskless protesters against Sydney’s monthlong lockdown clashed with police officers on Saturday, raising fears of adding to the city’s growing caseload. Officers arrested 57 people with more under investigation, facing hefty fines and penalties.
There were also protests in Melbourne and Adelaide, which are under lockdowns, and in Brisbane, where there are no restrictions. The police arrested six people in Melbourne, including one for assaulting an emergency worker, and fined dozens of others for failing to comply with orders to stay within five kilometers of home.