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France: Anti health pass demonstrations: no-pass or no-vax?

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Every Saturday, from mid-July to the end of August, about 200,000 people protested in France against the introduction of a health pass. Even now, there are still about 100,000 on the streets every Saturday. Why, what is this movement really about?


In July, facing a fourth wave of Covid, President Macron announced that a health pass, proving either vaccination or a recent negative PCR test, would be required to enter cinemas, theatres and other large events, bars, restaurants, long-distance trains and shopping centres were added to the list later. From August 30, workers in these sectors will also need the pass, and vaccination is obligatory for all health workers from September. Workers refusing vaccination could be suspended with no pay. Although there is no such requirement for the general public, the number of places requiring this pass introduces a de facto obligation to be vaccinated.

Normally, political life comes to a standstill in France during the summer break so, not only the numbers but the very fact the demos took place, is very surprising. On top of that, they were held in smaller towns and cities, not just Paris and other big cities. In all, there were more than 200 demonstrations every week. In Toulon, a stronghold of the protest, 22,000 people blocked the motorway and the main streets for hours.

Placards declared; “Freedom of choice” “Life without the pass” “My body, my choice, my freedom” “No to the health dictatorship”. Demonstrators include sectors of the working class (health workers, teachers), middle class and petty-bourgeoisie, many demonstrating for the first time in their lives. What is left of the Yellow Vest movement is quite present and active. As well as the French Tricolour and the singing of the Marseillaise, there were regional flags (Brittany, Normandy) and even monarchist flags: a very diverse crowd.

The dominant idea is that “freedom” is being attacked by the government and that the decision to get the vaccine or not is a personal choice, a fundamental civic liberty, in which the government should not interfere. This bourgeois individualist concept of freedom is strong in France (“Liberté” is the first motto on all town halls) and an important part of the national myth, widely accepted even in the trades unions and the left parties and organisations, including the centrist groups.

A second element is a wide-spread and deep mistrust of the government, which it has largely brought on itself. In March 2020, the Minister of Health explained that face masks were not necessary, but it soon became clear this was just to cover up a lack of masks in the country, even for health workers. The government attitude to vaccines added to the problem. First, the Russian Sputnik V and the Chinese vaccines were said to be ineffective, then it was the turn of Astra-Zeneca which, since July, is reserved for donations to other countries – a very peculiar interpretation of international solidarity.

The very rare cases of secondary effects from vaccination have been overstated in the media to the point of creating a true psychosis. Whether the attitude of the government is related to economic interests (the French pharmaceutical multinational Sanofi, or the Institut Pasteur, might come up with a vaccine at some point), or to national security considerations, is not clear. However, the whole atmosphere of secrecy regarding the EU contract for vaccines, the use of patent rights to boost profits for some of them, adds to the mistrust.

This builds on an already diffuse hostility to all vaccines. According to a poll taken on one of the demos, 66 percent declared they do not want to be vaccinated and the pollster concluded that “behind the refusal of the health pass, done in the name of fundamental liberties, there is a shared antivax culture”. Indeed, in July, in the aftermath of the first demonstrations, two vaccination centres have been damaged by fire, and pharmacists have also been attacked.

As in other countries, this is influenced by a strong current of right-wing conspiracy theorists. Since the start of Covid pandemic, this right-wing milieu has created a new icon with the doctor Didier Raoult, head of a University Hospital in Marseille. He claimed (and still does) that chloroquine is effective against covid, convincing many French doctors. Today, he continues this crusade against vaccines, appearing to many as a true representative of the “people against the elite”. France is also the country where the fake documentary “Hold Up” was filmed: it is a piece of fake news built on the idea of a great conspiracy, linking Covid to Bill Gates and the Davos Forum in a bid to enforce an authoritarian state.

It is therefore no wonder that the demonstrations against the health pass have been supported, organised and often dominated by right-wing reactionary parties including openly fascist organisations. In Paris, large demonstrations, several thousand strong, have been organised by Florian Philippot, formerly of Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National, and today head of a small far-right party, the Patriots. Other fascist or reactionary groups are also active, including Action Française, Bordeaux Nationaliste, les Zouaves, la Ligue du Midi and Civitas (catholic fundamentalists). In August, antisemitic placards were seen on several demonstrations, blaming Jews in France and elsewhere for the pandemic and supporting a recent call by an army general for a coup d’état to re-establish law and order.

The French Left

The position of most French left parties and unions has been ambiguous at best. All oppose compulsory vaccination, and a common position is summed up in a petition signed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other MPs of France Insoumise and PCF, but also CGT, SUD and NPA. The short document denounces the measures against workers (like suspension of the work contract), the fact that patients without the pass would be refused admission to hospitals except in emergency, and the generalised control on everybody that the pass introduces. It also calls for a generalised vaccination, with massive funds and recruitment for the health system, and the removal of patents on vaccines.

These demands are correct but avoid several crucial questions. Should the workers and activists join the Saturday demos? How should the Covid pandemic be combatted? Is there an absolute freedom to choose the vaccine or not? Most importantly, they avoid the question: What is the character of the movement: is it progressive or reactionary?

Clearly the question whether to support the demos depends on this characterisation. The New Anticapitalist Party, NPA, tried to reconcile everybody by writing in July: “Contrary to what they would like us to believe, the tens of thousands of people mobilised are not a pack of awful antivax reactionaries. While there are among them some fringes of far right and conspiracy theorists that will never be our allies, the social and political left cannot remain passive.” Yes, but what should be done then? Unfortunately, the NPA leaflet fudges the issue, explaining that “they would join the mobilisation initiatives, wherever it is possible to carry their politics”.

While in some cities CGT and SUD local branches have joined the demonstrations, SUD Health Sector calls for participation only on those mobilisations that “have nothing to do with those initiated by far right and conspiracy theorists that we fight against”.

The only group that has jumped into the “movement” since the start is Revolution Permanent, RP, the section of Fraccion Trotskista that recently split from NPA. RP has for years underestimated the danger of the far right in France. It supported the Yellow Vests movement uncritically and did the same with these anti-pass demonstrations.

RP admits that the people participating are strongly anti-vax : “the movement continues to limit itself to denouncing the health pass with a deep mistrust in vaccine” and again “While, with its opposition to the health authoritarianism, the mobilisation expresses a progressive perspective, we cannot hide the fact that the majority of the people mobilised are against the vaccine, more or less firmly, often because of hesitation, lack of information and total rejection of Macron's politics.” (rp 17 July)

RP points to the fact that this creates a diffuse idea to stress unity above all: “whether one is vaccinated or not, it is essential to struggle against the health pass”. However, by insisting that revolutionaries should participate, they reveal a gross opportunism. For instance, they praise Jérôme Rodriguez, one of the leaders of the Yellow Vests, for his slogans “Vaccinated or not vaccinated, we die of hunger” “Vaccinated or not vaccinated, we will all die because of ecology”, “Vaccinated or not vaccinated, to recover our freedom, we should oust Macron and all his government to live again.” (rp 17 July). These slogans are plainly wrong. They add to the confusion, downplay at best the main question of 100 percent vaccination for everybody and are far from proposing a progressive way forward.

RP also denounces the complicities and close contacts between the organised workers' movement and the fascists: “we have for instance seen SUD unionised firemen marching close to Civitas fundamentalist priests or the official of the CGT local branch sheltering with his umbrella a member of RN speaking with the microphone. We have also seen conspiracy theorists like Richard Boutry being offered the microphone by health workers on strike.”

However, RP insists that the main trades unions should intervene in the movement to stop the fascists from having an influence on the workers: “It is indispensable that the workers' movement develops a hegemonic politics towards the mobilisation of July 17 (the first anti-pass demo) in which sectors of the workers participate.” (rp 17 July)

A more balanced and critical assessment is expressed by Fraction l’Etincelle (a faction inside NPA). While l’Etincelle uncritically supported the Yellow Vest movement, their workerism makes them more reserved in this case. In a recent balance sheet (cr 8 September) of the demonstrations across the country, they conclude “While workers and employees have participated in these demonstrations, they did so as individuals and no important workers' contingent has been formed, under a TU banner or not.”

On the question of antisemitism: “The people carrying these [antisemitic] placards could march without problem among the other demonstrators. They have not been confronted apart from exceptional cases. This does not mean that the mass of the people are antisemitic, but that these abject positions were not shocking for them.”

And, to conclude: “One fact is certain: no demonstration, in the course of these two months, has taken a strongly social orientation.” “It is above all on a social and class autumn that we should count, against the attacks of the government, to put in the background, or to marginalise, this worrying tide of obscurantism that helps the far right.”

The character of the movement

Considering all these elements, the simple question arises: what is the character of the movement itself? Whilst it does raise some justified demands (against sacking workers who are not vaccinated), it is pretty obvious that this is a mass movement against vaccination. It is downplaying the very real danger of the pandemic and rejecting all safety measures by the state. As the approaching next wave in France and globally demonstrates, the danger of the pandemic is real. In reality, it is downplayed by the bourgeois governments, all their measures have been designed to limit the impact on business in the industrial and financial sectors.

Of course, these half-hearted measures have understandably enraged sections of the capitalist class whose businesses have not been protected, like restaurants, cinemas, tourist industries and so on. Against the background of an economic and health crisis which affected the working class and the poor most, the movement does address justified fears and anger, but it is directing them towards a reactionary goal.

The movement itself does not have an ambiguous character as the yellow vest movement had in some places. It is a reactionary petit-bourgeois mass movement. Even when it takes on real issues or raises justified demands, this does not change its fundamental character. Indeed, most reactionary populist movements have addressed some real grievances of the masses, they have to if they are to rally impoverished sections of the petit-bourgeoisie and even sections of the working class for their reactionary goals.

The “anti-vax” element of the movement, therefore, is not a subordinated aspect, but its essence. The widespread circulation of conspiracy theories and irrationalism is not an aberration in an otherwise supportable anti-governmental movement but is at its heart. The no-vax call and the associated rejection, or at least minimisation, of the health danger are at the centre of the movement.

Therefore, the trade unions and the organised left should not give any support to the anti-vax-demonstrations. It is pointless, confusing and dangerous to believe that a mobilisation based centrally on the reactionary anti-vax ideology can be reoriented to become a progressive working class movement.

What to do?

Instead, the French working class movement should concentrate on three main points:

1) The basis of any progressive protest against the government should be the demand for 100 percent free vaccination for everybody. Today, this is not the case and class inequalities are directly reflected in the statistics. Before the summer, 72 percent of the doctors, but only 59 percent of the nurses and 50 percent of the nursing assistants had received one jab. Similar figures apply to white versus blue collar workers. Covid has heavily hit the poorest areas, the unqualified and immigrant workers. Large parts of the population are also not vaccinated in rural areas, because of prejudice and lack of accessible medical facilities. This is especially true for older people and all those left behind by the IT gap. The unions should demand that, instead of a repressive campaign, the government should open mobile vaccination centres in these areas and hire nurses and doctors to reach out to all these layers of the population.

2) The unions should organise the workers in separate demonstrations, not join those of fascist and conspiracy theorists. For instance, this could start with the medical sectors on strike, but during the week, rather than weekends, and based on the workers' organisations. Obviously, we should try to win back those workers who have been attracted to the Saturday demonstrations, by drawing them into a separate working class movement.

3) The idea that the vaccination is a purely individual choice should be rejected and opposed. This is a reactionary “libertarian” position that has nothing to do with the collective values and solidarity of the working class. Workers in several sectors are already required to be vaccinated, for instance against hepatitis. Children have to be vaccinated to be registered in kindergartens and schools. Such measures have allowed the effective eradication of diseases that used to be killers. In times of pandemic, the "freedom" to not have the vaccine amounts to the freedom to propagate the virus to other people, putting them in danger. Any decision based on a purely individual evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is nothing but a bourgeois “liberal” approach in the health sphere. While we reject the repressive arsenal of Macron and his government, we do not therefore side with reactionaries just because they also oppose him.

Covid has revealed fundamental weaknesses in the French left and exposed its deep crisis of leadership. Trying to reconcile opposite approaches by raising vague and ambiguous formulations, as the NPA has done, only confuses the issues even more. The adventurism of RP is even more dangerous. Only a clear, class analysis of the fundamental problems, and class struggle solutions to them, can help the French workers in the fight against the bourgeois government, its austerity and its regressive social reforms. That is also the only way to counter the danger of fascist reactionary ideas and forces that could otherwise gain a wider audience and influence.