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Home » Persuasion vs. Coercion: Vaccine Debate in Europe Heats Up

Persuasion vs. Coercion: Vaccine Debate in Europe Heats Up

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PARIS — As Europe and the United States scramble to find an appropriate balance between curbing the Delta variant of the coronavirus and curbing personal freedom, President Emmanuel Macron has led the way down a narrow path combining limited compulsion to get vaccinated with widespread coercion.

His approach of ordering health workers to get vaccinated by Sept. 15, and telling the rest of the French population they will be denied access to most indoor public venues if unvaccinated or without a negative test by Aug. 1, has prompted other countries including Italy to follow suit, even as it has stirred pockets of deep resistance.

“You are creating a society of generalized control for months, maybe years,” Éric Coquerel, a lawmaker from the far-left France Unbowed party, said during a tumultuous 48-hour parliamentary debate on Mr. Macron’s measures that ended early Friday with a relatively narrow victory for the president.

Barreling through 1,200 proposed amendments, defying accusations of authoritarianism and chaos from the hard right and left, the lower house voted by 117 to 86 to back President Macron’s attempt to strong-arm the French to get vaccinated by making their lives miserable if they do not.

Europe’s problem is similar to that of the United States: vaccination levels that, at around or just under 60 percent, are inadequate for herd immunity; surging Delta variant cases; and growing divisions over how far getting an injection can be mandated.

But where the United States has generally not gone beyond hospitals and major health systems requiring employees to get Covid-19 vaccines, major European economies including France and Italy are moving closer to making vaccines mandatory for everyone.

Mr. Macron’s measures, announced July 12 as the only means to avoid yet another French lockdown, have spurred both protests and an extraordinary surge in vaccinations, with 3.7 million booked in the first week after the president spoke, and a record of nearly 900,000 vaccinations in a single day on July 19. In this sense, his bold move has been a success.

With the high summer vacation season underway, the French responded massively to the specter of their leisure options getting nixed.

Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, followed the French example. He did not pull punches in announcing similar measures this week. “The appeal to not getting vaccinated is an appeal to die,” he said. Resistance to vaccination could also kill others, he noted.

But the extent of the European lurch toward mandatory measures has also prompted unease and questioning over loss of freedom.

Claire Hédon, France’s government-appointed human rights ombudsman, known as the defender of rights, warned this week that the parliament was acting with unjustifiable haste “given the extent of the blow to fundamental rights and liberties that is foreseen.”

Among the most disturbing measures, she said, was the granting to “public and private enterprise of a kind of police power.”

She did not address the question of whether French freedoms include the freedom to put other people at risk.

The so-called “health law” would oblige the French to get a health pass — known in Italy as a “green pass” — showing they have been vaccinated against Covid-19, or recently tested negative, if they want to go to restaurants and cafes.

These establishments, many of which have protested, would then have the obligation to enforce the rule or be fined. They will not, however, have the power to demand the picture I.D.’s of prospective diners in order to match them with the health pass. That is a right still limited to the police, the government said.

The French draft law will now go to the Senate, with a view to final adoption within a week and enforcement from the beginning of next month.

The provision making vaccination mandatory for health workers prompted particular fury in the National Assembly. “You have gone completely crazy,” said Julien Aubert, a lawmaker from the center-right Republicans party.

The idea of dismissing or not paying a worker for choosing not to be vaccinated is a far cry from normal French labor practice, which tends to make firing very difficult. Any attempt would certainly face court challenges.

Olivier Véran, the health minister, who was pictured in Le Monde with his head slumped on a desk during the marathon debate, replied that, “The spirit of this text is certainly not to fire people or force them to quit, it is to encourage vaccination.”

In France, 22,000 coronavirus cases were recorded in one 24-hour period this week, the highest rate in more than two months. But in Britain, with twice as many new infections in recent days, the approach has been radically different.

Boris Johnson’s conservative government declared “Freedom Day” this week, removing many Covid-19 restrictions. The prime minister is betting that with 68.4 percent of the population vaccinated at least once, Britain is ready to take its chances with a virus that appears to be here to stay.

The United States has Florida, where no business or government entity can deny service to the non-vaccinated, and San Francisco, where all city workers are now required to be vaccinated, at opposite poles of the mandatory vaccine debate. Europe has London and Paris.

Since President Macron revealed his strategy two weeks ago, some vaccination centers have been ransacked. Protests have unfurled across France with the same kind of anti-elite, anti-big-business themes that characterized the Yellow Vest movement that began in 2018.

As in the United States, some French people see manipulation and lies in the vaccination campaign — and indeed in the very way the coronavirus is portrayed as a mortal threat — where most see good sense and social responsibility.

“There is continuity between the Yellow Vests and the anti-health-pass movement,” said Sophie Tissier, a member of both and former freelance technician for a TV network. “They contest the way an anti-democratic political system functions in France.”

She continued: “If you are in the political opposition here, you are accused of being a conspiracy theorist. I am absolutely not that. I am just asking questions. We are witnessing a dictatorial drift.”

On both sides of the debate, positions are hardening and the rhetoric growing wilder. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the governing coalition’s nationalist League party, suggested that requiring vaccination would mean depriving “at least half the population of their right to life.”

He did not elaborate. Several opinion polls have shown that 70 percent of Italians favor the sort of restrictions France first imposed, and 40 million Italians, or two-thirds of the population, have already downloaded the green pass.

“I propose collecting money to pay Netflix subscriptions to anti-vaxxers for when they will be under house arrest, closed in their homes like mice,” Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist, wrote on Twitter.

In France, further protests are planned for the weekend, and it seems possible the summer will not see the usual respite from political agitation. The leaders of the far right and far left — Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon — have already made clear they see political opportunity in the vaccine debate.

Hugues Debotte, an unemployed chef who was a Yellow Vest protester, said Mr. Macron had to be thanked for a decision that “mobilized hundreds of thousands of people.”

“The question is not the vaccination,” he said in an interview. “It is obliging us to do something I don’t want to do. I prefer to say ‘No’ and keep my freedom.”

Mr. Debotte is busy organizing resistance through various online networks. “We are in a soft dictatorship, and the oligarchs take us for idiots,” he said. “There is no more pandemic today. We know that. We are not stupid.”

Governments and health experts disagree, and it is clear that Mr. Macron will not relent. Mr. Véran, the health minister, said: “We have two choices. Succeed with the pass quickly, very quickly, or expose ourselves to the risk of another national lockdown.”


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