There’s a riot goin’ on

Place Leclerc 24th July

I don’t know. You turn your back for five minutes and all hell breaks loose.

Last Saturday (July 24th), while we were still in Paris, about 700 people staged an anti-health pass demonstration in Place Leclerc, the main square in Poitiers. A few dozen demonstrators, taking advantage of a wedding that was being held there, broke into la mairie. A flag was stolen, and a portrait of President Macron was taken from the wall and thrown down into the street. Somebody helpfully filmed the whole thing (https://twitter.com/​dystoman/​status/​​1419674069436338180?s=20).

The Poitiers protestors were not alone. On that day, an estimated 160,000 protesters took part in more than 200 demonstrations across France, a 30% increase on the week before. Another series of demonstrations took place nationwide yesterday (July 31st), and the overall number of protestors has risen to more than 200,000. About 1,000 marched through Poitiers, but this time the protest passed off peacefully. (The figures here are provided by John Lichfield, who writes for The Local magazine in France and provides a weekly analysis of the virus and vaccination situation in France and the UK.)

According to an IFOP poll for the Journal du Dimanche, support for the anti-passers is heavily concentrated on the hard left (57% support) and the hard right (49%), and overlaps to a large degree with the Gilets Jaunes movement. It can thus be seen as part of a more general anti-Macron movement supported by the most extreme Macron-hating sections of the population.

At the same time, support for the movement among the young is quite strong – 51% among 18-to-35s. As John Lichfield points out, ‘The people who marched on the last two Saturdays were not all anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists (although many were).’ While some banners said ‘Masks make children autistic’ or ‘Vaccines create variants,’ there were others saying ‘Pro-vaccine but also pro-liberty.’ While some were wearing yellow stars similar to those imposed on Jews by the Nazi occupiers of France and complaining of a vaccine-regulated ‘apartheid’, others were arguing against Macron’s decision to make vaccination more or less compulsory. Macron himself had at first been reluctant to do this.

For all the protests, the government’s recent initiatives to promote vaccination have been highly successful. Since the president first gave notice of the introduction of the health pass two weeks ago, the average number of first shots given daily has doubled. In this period, almost 5 million people have had their first vaccination, and in each of the past four days more than 400,000 first jabs have been administered. At the same time, the vaccination programme in the UK has slowed down dramatically. As things stand, France (now averaging 330,000 first shots a day) could overtake Britain (averaging 40,000 a day) in the total number of first vaccinations, in about three weeks’ time.

At the moment, it is difficult to assess what impact the anti-pass protests will have, or indeed what it is that the protestors are hoping to achieve. From August 9th, the health passport will be required for access to bars, restaurants, and cafés, larger shopping centres and malls, hospitals, medical centres, and retirement homes. It will also be needed for long-distance travel within France – domestic flights, interregional bus travel, and TGV or Intercité trains.

A recent poll shows that two-thirds of the French population support the president’s policy. At the same time, in John Lichfield’s view, the demonstrations will continue and may even get larger: ‘The nutters and the diehards and the weekend hobby-protesters will go on indefinitely. The more moderate, sensible protesters will melt away as the peak August holiday season begins.’ We shall see.

***

The British government has now opened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers from its ‘amber list’ countries. These include the USA and nearly all of mainland Europe. The glaring exception is France, which for some bizarre reason has been singled out and put on an ‘amber-plus’ list. On the Today programme on Friday, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, set out the thinking behind this decision. According to him, it was the high number of cases of the Beta variant on the island of Réunion, a French Overseas department.

There are two tiny flaws in this argument. Firstly, Réunion is actually 6,000 miles from mainland France (where the number of Beta variant cases is low and declining rapidly). Secondly, Réunion itself is on the amber list, which means that people arriving in Britain from the island containing the Beta variant the government is worried about don’t have to isolate.

The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs of the United Kingdom

It is worth remembering at this point that France probably wouldn’t be Raab’s specialist subject on Mastermind. In 2018, during the Brexit negotiations, he admitted that he ‘hadn’t quite understood’ how reliant UK trade in goods is on the Dover–Calais crossing.

The word is that France might be admitted back into the fold next Thursday. I’m not holding my breath.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Irish for ‘escalator’ is staighre beo, ‘living stairs’.

In 2013, a stolen prosthetic arm was found in a second-hand shop in Bournemouth.

In 2004, a boat in Texas capsized because everyone ran to one side to look at a nudist beach.

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