France defends tougher vaccine rules as bookings soar

Critics have accused the French president of discriminating against vaccine sceptics

The French government has defended a decision to ask unvaccinated people who want to eat in restaurants or take long-distance trips to undertake tests for Covid-19.

President Emmanuel Macron announced the tougher measure on Monday, along with mandatory vaccinations for healthcare and retirement home workers, prompting a surge in bookings for the shot.

Critics accused the president of discriminating against sceptics or those who will not be fully vaccinated before the rules come into effect.

Others say the government is effectively imposing general vaccination by stealth. The French word for dictatorship, #Dictature, was trending on Twitter.

“There isn’t any vaccine obligation. This is maximum inducement,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.

“I have a hard time understanding, in a country where 11 vaccines are already mandatory ... that this could be seen as a dictatorship.”

After a year of studying the vaccines, “the time of doubting is long past”, he said.

The rules will be relaxed for teenagers who have only been offered vaccines since mid-June.

“Making summer hell is out of the question,” Mr Attal said.

The Delta variant is now causing the majority of the 4,000 to 5,000 new cases per day in France.

That figure could jump to 35,000 by August without new containment measures, the Pasteur Institute said on Monday.

Mr Macron’s speech sparked a record surge in vaccine bookings. More than 1.7 million people – most aged under 35 – had made appointments as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the head of the Doctolib reservation site.

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Twitter on Tuesday that a record 792,000 jabs had been administered in the most recent 24-hour reporting period.

“This momentum needs to grow and continue in the coming weeks,” he said.

From July 21, proof of vaccination or a negative test will be needed to visit theatres, cinemas and amusement parks.

From August, anyone wanting to dine out or drink at a bar, take a long-distance train or visit a shopping centre will need to have the health pass.

Free Covid tests will end in September to further encourage vaccination, Mr Macron said in his speech, watched by 22 million people.

He also announced mandatory Covid-19 vaccination for healthcare staff, retirement home workers and others working with vulnerable people from September, in line with similar moves in Greece, Italy and Britain.

Three quarters (76 per cent) of French people support the required vaccines for health workers as well as the travel restrictions, according to a survey by polling company Elabe on Tuesday. It found 58 per cent backed the restaurant rule.

But cinema owners and restaurateurs said they worried the rules will force many patrons to stay away just as they are emerging from months of pandemic closures.

“We’re not the police. Lots of my clients are not vaccinated. If they have to have a test and wait 48 hours to have a beer, they’re not going to come,” one Paris restaurant owner told AFP.

Jocelyn Bouyssy, the head of the CGR Cinemas group, told Franceinfo radio he was “very angry” about the health pass, which would be difficult to implement and dissuade people from going out to watch a film.

“We’re like lambs being led to the slaughter,” he said.

But Health Minister Olivier Veran insisted that the health pass was “not a punishment, it’s not blackmail.”

He said the choice was between accepting the new measures, which primarily affect the unvaccinated, or heading for a fourth lockdown, which would hit the whole country.

“We want to avoid a lockdown at all costs,” he told BFM television.

About 35.5 million people – slightly more than half of France’s population – have received at least one vaccine dose so far.

At the start of the pandemic, France had some of the highest levels of vaccine scepticism in the developed world.

Updated: July 13th 2021, 7:36 PM