Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is betting his political future on a nationwide Covid health pass. Approaching the launch of his campaign for re-election to a second five-year term next April, Macron went on nationwide television on the eve of France’s national holiday of Bastille Day with a series of some of the world’s most stringent anti-pandemic edicts – an effort to stifle the surging Delta variant, he said, and fend off a fourth Covid wave.
Seemingly prepared to take hard and politically polarizing choices, Macron announced Monday that all health care workers — in hospitals, nursing and retirement homes, even home-care nurses — must be fully inoculated against Covid or, quite simply, they won’t be paid after September 15.
And beginning August 1, nobody will be allowed in any French bar, restaurant, shopping mall, concert hall, or any long-distance train or airplane without a “sanitary pass” attesting to full vaccination or a recent negative Covid test. Violators could face fines up to 45,000 euros ($53,000) and a year in jail.
Macron further incentivized this push toward vaccination by announcing that government reimbursement for most Covid tests are ending, making it increasingly expensive to keep current the now all but mandatory health pass.
The measures already seem to be working – and to an extent that ought to give President Joe Biden or any number of other world leaders something to consider as a model. French Prime Minister Jean Castex reported that in the 18 hours after Macron’s speech, some 792,339 injections were administered nationwide, while Doctolib, the website that registers appointments, reported another 1.7 million bookings for shots, both all-time records in France. The US, by contrast, administered around 341,000 vaccines on Tuesday in a population that is five times the size of France’s.
Politically, though, it could be risky for Macron. His principal challenger for re-election, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party, immediately blasted the mandates as “a serious decline in individual freedoms,” and another libertarian opposition presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, branded it as “abuse of power and social discrimination.” But others on the right and on the left, including leaders of both the socialists and communists, applauded it. Socialist Party spokesman Bernard Vallaud observed “everything must be done to prevent the fourth wave.”
France’s struggles with Covid and fears over an imminent fourth wave have also impacted relations with the United States, which refuses to admit nearly all French passport-holders, though Americans are welcome now in France. While not mentioned in any of the public toasts, the issue was an undercurrent at the Bastille Day celebrations at the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC on Wednesday.
Macron is also hoping the financial benefits of improved Covid control will pay off for him at the polls. In his speech announcing the new vaccination push, he maintained that his plan’s success would assure the nation’s economic expansion over the next year. The French national statistics office is projecting growth by at least 6%, faster than earlier forecasts of 5%. Moreover, Macron, the youngest president in French history, is anxious to frame a path for his country as far ahead as 2030, three years after he would leave office if he wins a second term next April. “The summer of mobilization for vaccines will also be the summer of recovery” of the economy, Macron assured his 22 million viewers.
Beyond France, Macron’s words and actions seem likely to resonate widely, especially since it is becoming increasingly clear that he is anxious to assume the European leadership mantle long held by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel leaves office in September after more than 15 years in power.
His ambitions will only be reinforced when France takes charge of the European Union as part of a routine rotation on January 1. But in the case of Covid, Macron already does seem to have seized a leadership that will be hard to deny him. Greece and Italy have also mandated the universal vaccination of health workers, while Germany and Cyprus are requiring those eating in restaurants to prove they’ve been vaccinated. Still, no national plan is as immediately sweeping as that of France.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Macron, with an approval rating hovering around 41%, is undoubtedly facing a challenging re-election bid as his rivals prepare for campaigning to begin formally in September when France returns from its summer break. Still, despite all his battles with the yellow vest movement and other protests, barely 8,000 people mobilized across France on Wednesday according to police estimates, protesting “against dictatorship” and the obligatory health pass.
Macron already seems to be carving out a political future based on an anti-Covid campaign that the leading French daily Le Monde characterized as more nationalist than five years ago. But it is still a nationalism rooted in membership in a united Europe and a rejuvenated NATO. The last thing Europe, or America, needs is a fourth Covid wave sweeping through France.
If the new French measures work, France could become a model of how to deal with a deadly pandemic and those who deny its impact. And that might be enough for Macron to retain his hold on the Élysée Palace next April.