Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

How battling France’s COVID pass led the Left to embolden the far Right

Instead of focusing on changes that would ease pandemic suffering, left-wing groups have joined hysterical protests that boost conspiracy theorists

Philippe Marlière
4 October 2021, 9.56am
Jean-Luc Melenchon considers the anti-COVID rule protests to be revolutionary
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Sipa USA/Alamy. All rights reserved

France’s introduction of a COVID health pass to enter certain public spaces has been met with widespread opposition – but the Left is doing itself no favours by joining in the protests.

In July, the French government introduced the rule that the public must show they have been vaccinated against the virus or had a recent negative test to gain access to public venues that can host more than 50 people, as well as restaurants, cafés, and long-distance trains.

By taking to the streets to protest against the rule, the Left has made cardinal errors, both ethically and politically, and thus contributed to a political muddle-headedness that provides coverage for conspiracy theorists and the far Right.

The decision to bring in a prerequisite to access certain public spaces or services is in some ways arbitrary, as well as being ultimately unsatisfactory, given the current situation. Its introduction might have been more justified if those vaccinated against COVID-19 became permanently immune to it and could not transmit it – but that is not the case.

Nor are some of the practicalities appropriate. Why, for example, is the pass needed for outdoor venues such as café terraces if social-distancing rules are being complied with? And the legislation contains questionable measures: a negative test is valid for 72 hours (instead of the 24 hours accepted in Germany, for example). A person could be incubating the virus, which may be undetectable at the time of the test and may not manifest until the third day after infection, therefore extending the risk of greater illness and transmission.

There is also reason to bemoan the French government’s dual authoritarianism and amateurism. The health pass was made mandatory without any consultation or explanation of the potential benefits in a controversial move by President Emmanuel Macron – who has single-handedly made decisions on French health policy for the past 18 months, with some of them flying in the face of medical advice. The botched debate in the National Assembly that led to the adoption of the health passport law, should not deceive anyone.

A gimmick of little use

The health pass was cobbled together to make up for the severe deficiencies of the French welfare state since the start of the pandemic (and indeed before that): a lack of investment in public health (hospital staff and facilities/equipment); an erratic vaccination drive that leaves behind vulnerable groups (the working classes, ethnic minorities and young people); and inconsistent, and at times even misleading, health messaging since spring 2020 (on wearing masks and other measures that the public could take to combat the spread of COVID-19).

The supposedly democratic Caesarism of France’s Fifth Republic is actually inherently undemocratic and inimical to public freedoms. Judging by what protesters have been saying, condemning the 'health dictatorship' or the 'tyrant Macron', one might think France has just experienced a coup d’état. However, as the former president François Mitterrand famously wrote, the coup became a permanent fixture when the current constitution was passed in 1958.

Creating hysteria around a complex issue will do nothing to develop a progressive perspective regarding the health situation. Personal rejection of and contempt for Macron cannot serve as a political roadmap for a French Left that is weak and struggling to be heard as never before. Any potentially positive effects of this health pass are unclear and it was imposed without any public debate, leading to the conclusion that at best, it is a gimmick of little use. The Left could have grasped the situation and focused on what really matters: keeping up pressure on the government to ensure a more effective rollout of the vaccination drive. After all, scientists agree that the only way to beat the pandemic will be to vaccinate a substantial proportion of the global population.

Vaccination is the most effective way to put COVID-19 behind us

Unlike left-wingers in other countries, such as Bernie Sanders in the US, the French Left is painfully timid when it comes to this issue. In spring last year, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise (or LFI, which translates as Unbowed France) group in the National Assembly, rashly lent his support to Professor Didier Raoult in advocating the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, and even claimed that he would take this drug if he contracted the disease. The usage of hydroxychloroquine was quickly discredited by the international medical community.

Figureheads of the French Left, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon and several officials of Unbowed France, have expressed fierce opposition to mandatory vaccination for those working in the healthcare sector. They are all too keen to sympathise with those who have decided not to be vaccinated.

However, this (theoretically understandable) caution neglects a key point, namely that getting vaccinated is the quickest and most effective way to put the pandemic behind us. Moreover, such foot-dragging can be seen as endorsing the amorphous grouping of those opposed to the health pass, who are often anti-vaxxers.

Escalation of rhetoric

This opposition to the health pass has given rise to many muddle-headed protests by the Left. Some of the high-profile media interventions in recent weeks have included articles bringing together figures from the Left and the far Right, for example, in the Libération newspaper on 6 August, Sébastien Jumel (French Communist Party, PCF) and François Ruffin (LFI) joined up with François-Xavier Bellamy, an MEP for the centre-Right Republicans who is involved in the anti-same-sex marriage organisation, La Manif Pour Tous (Protest For All).

There have also been apocalyptic demagogic posturings by left-wing intellectuals (e.g. Jean-Francois Bayart’s article on the left-wing site Mediapart on 20 July); alarming and confusing statements with a bent for conspiracy theories (e.g. a piece by Barbara Stiegler on the Reporterre website on 31 July); a switch towards the rabidly anti-vaccine and anti-science stances of the far Right (e.g. Laurent Mucchielli, an academic who has moved his column from Mediapart to France Soir, a publication that has become an outlet espousing the opinions of conspiracy theorists); and, in general, an escalation of rhetoric dwelling ad nauseam on the supposed establishment of a 'dictatorship' or 'health apartheid'.

What kind of disoriented muddle has the French Left got itself into when leaders of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen’s Action (ATTAC), the Copernic Foundation, LFI and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, which translates as New Anti-Capitalist Party) join up to support the demonstrations and write in Libération on 22 July of an “all-controlling society”?

Even more dangerous is the belief in certain left-wing circles that the demonstrations against the health pass are indicative of a major social movement in favour of public freedoms. Indeed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has described these marches as citizen revolutions that have been witnessed around the world. This misconception is not based on any specific data or field research and yet is a common theme expounded on social media and in certain left-wing outlets. In fact, a brief perusal of field reports and vox pop interviews, as well as videos of protests against the health pass, appears to contradict this hypothesis.

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Attack on freedom?

Demonstration footage shows that protesters often say little against the health pass itself and a lot against the vaccine. The flat rejection of the health pass comes more from left-wing intellectuals than your average demonstrator. It could be that the health pass protests are a sideshow that is meant to lead the public to adopt the more radical stance of rejecting the vaccine.

A survey published in August by international market research group IFOP provided a sociological profile of those demonstrating against the health pass. Around one-third of the French public support the movement (by way of comparison, in the early days of the grassroots ‘yellow vests’ protests for economic justice, 68% of the population were in support).

Politically, opponents of the health pass are mainly close to LFI or the far-Right party, Rassemblement National (RN, which translates as National Rally and was formerly known as the National Front), and support the yellow vest movement. A hardcore of protesters opposes both the health pass and vaccination. The health pass is perceived to be an attack on freedoms or a step towards the establishment of a dictatorship. Most of those who oppose the health pass are also vaccine sceptics.

A study published in August by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation about vaccine mistrust in the south of France showed that anti-vaxxers tend to be strongly drawn to natural and alternative remedies and hail from various sociologically and politically heterogeneous groups, including executives and university graduates, those with New Age and alternative lifestyles, ‘neo-rurals’ (people who have moved from the city to the countryside), retired people and members of the lower middle classes.

There is also a strong anti-elite contingent that claims to stand up for 'the people' and forms the backbone of the protests. The vaccine sceptics are receptive to the conspiracy theories of the far Right, who are very active in the demonstrations. As such, the demonstrations abound with anti-Semitic symbols: placards asking “Who?” – suggesting that the vaccination is a Jewish plot – and the yellow stars of David worn by anti-vaxxers are all part of a creeping negationism. Meanwhile, the Left in general underestimates, or is even disinterested in, these expressions of anti-Semitism.

Anti-vaccine protesters back a libertarian and selfish idea of freedom, with no regard for the common good

Members of the Left are making a huge mistake if they think they’re defending public freedoms by protesting against the health pass alongside these groups. The demonstrators who support an anti-vaccine agenda are poles apart from this fight, in that they back a libertarian and selfish idea of freedom: the concept of “negative liberty” introduced by Isaiah Berlin, i.e. doing what they see fit, with no regard for public health and the common good.

Those upholding left-wing republicanism in France should know their classics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in 1762’s ‘The Social Contract’, showed that the transition from the state of nature to a civil society substitutes moral and civic conduct focusing on the common good for conduct based on instinct and personal goodwill. In doing so, citizens raise themselves up both morally and intellectually. In the intellectual heritage of the French Left, there are other ways of reconciling the development of individualities with standing up for common interests.

Vaccination and public health represent social values and a common heritage. It is strange to see parts of the Left disintegrating in the face of this issue and losing their bearings completely. The health branch of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) called on health workers to “strike indefinitely” in opposition to mandatory vaccination for carers – by doing so, a branch of France’s largest trade union confederation has actually managed to bolster the far Right.

By getting caught up in this muddle-headed thinking alongside the far Right, the radical Left protesters have lost sight of what really matters. Instead of criticising Macron (as despicable as his policies might be) or engaging in endless discussions about the 'neoliberal controlling society' and 'Big Pharma' (whose misdeeds go back long before COVID-19 emerged), everything possible should be done to put forward solutions for the groups most affected by the pandemic: those who have lost loved ones; the poor; precarious workers and ethnic minorities.

Rather than supporting an adulterated, right-wing concept of freedom, the Left should push for measures that will help bring the pandemic suffering to an end – for most people to get vaccinated, to uphold hygiene measures that combat the spread of the virus, to lift patents on vaccines, and roll out improvements in public health. It should also reconnect with its values, because vaccination is not a question of personal freedom, but one of national and international solidarity.

Empower and protect, don’t prohibit: a better approach to child work

Bans on child labour don’t work because they ignore why children work in the first place. That is why the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour will fail.

If we truly care about working children, we need to start trying to keep them safe in work rather than insisting that they end work entirely. Our panelists, all advocates for child workers, offer us a new way forward.

Join us for this free live event at 5pm UK time on Thursday 28 October.

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