French President Emmanuel Macron is considered a shrewd politician who carefully weighs his public statements. When he used harsh language this week to talk about how his government should treat those who have chosen not to stay vaccinated against COVID-19, almost no one interpreted it as a slip of the tongue.
Throughout Western Europe – which, like much of the world, is struggling with the spread of Omicron, the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus – vaccine hesitants are coming under increasing official pressure to get vaccinated if they are able. And that triggers a passionate backlash.
In one European country after another, public health restrictions are steadily tightened. Italy has issued a mandate to vaccinate people over the age of 50. The largest party in the German government coalition wants to decide by the end of March whether to try to enforce a universal vaccination mandate.
Austria plans to step up the enforcement of existing measures to ban unvaccinated people in many public places. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to keep vaccinations voluntarily, but on Thursday he posted what he called the “mumbo jumbo” on social media by anti-vaccine activists.
As the pandemic drags on into a third year, public frustration – and reluctance to use lockdowns as a tool to contain the spread of the virus – has fueled the debate over how the world’s most advanced economies are facing the next phase of a long and debilitating struggle a contagion that has killed more than 5.4 million people worldwide.
In France, Omicron is breaking the case numbers even though more than 90% of people over the age of 12 have received at least two doses of the vaccine. This helped France’s House of Commons approve stricter requirements on Thursday for obtaining the passport required to visit bars, restaurants, cinemas and other indoor public spaces.
If France’s upper house approves the measure, which could happen next week, a negative coronavirus test will no longer be enough. To be able to participate in most forms of public life – attending concerts and sporting events, boarding flights, and taking long-distance trains – people must demonstrate by January 15 that they received the full recommended dose of the vaccine.
The French president, ahead of the April elections, sparked an outcry on Tuesday when he used a crude barn-yard-style nickname in a forum with readers of Le Parisien newspaper to express his wish, the unvaccinated people by further restrictions intensely annoy access to public life.
Three days later, still under fire from critics who deemed his language inappropriate for a president, Macron showed no remorse. “I stand by my previous comments,” he told reporters on Friday.
Some listeners were less disturbed by the crude language used by the French leader than by his suggestion that the unvaccinated would not be performing their civic duties.
“They curtail the freedom of others,” Macron said Friday of those who insist that staying unvaccinated is a matter of personal freedom. “I can’t accept that.”
That sentiment did not go down well with some of his compatriots, including attorney Samir Kahoul, who liked to queue up for shots but was reluctant to hear the president, who asked if the unvaccinated were indeed minor citizens.
“We blame part of the population for the disaster,” said Kahoul, who lives in the suburbs of Paris. “Compulsory vaccines would be less hypocritical.”
In Germany, many of those who have decided to remain unvaccinated say that they feel socially ostracized as a result. Some women who do not want to get vaccinated are even rushing their plans to raise a family and take state-paid maternity leave to avoid their vaccinations to meet employer demands.
Dagmar Rossner, a gynecologist practicing outside of Berlin, said several of her patients were hoping employers’ vaccination regulations would return after a year of maternity leave, during which most of their wages are paid by the state.
“They wanted to start families at some point anyway, but made up their minds immediately because of the pressure,” she said. “Some of my unvaccinated patients say they feel unwelcome almost everywhere.”
The German authorities report a booming underground market for fake vaccination certificates by those seeking to circumvent the restrictions. In Berlin, police reported that they had seized more than 1,100 such forged documents in the past year and brought charges against those who tried to use them. According to German news reports, criminal syndicates charge between 200 and 300 euros – around 225 to 340 US dollars – for the fakes.
Many Germans who are aware of their history under Communist and National Socialist rule are also squeamish about a possible national register of vaccinated people, as this contradicts the country’s valued data protection laws.
And the anti-vaccination movement, while still relatively small, has increased in intensity, with protests sometimes turning into violence. More than 35,000 people took part in protests on Monday, during which the police were hit by bottles and incendiary bombs.
Protesters against a universal COVID-19 vaccination mandate will gather on Monday in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz.
(Michael Sohn / Associated Press)
In a number of countries, including the United States, the vaccine debate has become increasingly politicized. Macron’s vulgarity was sardonically repeated by the right-wing extremist presidential hopefuls Eric Zemmour, who told RTL radio on Thursday that better targets would be gang bosses and drug traffickers.
The news hit the receptive ears of voters like Jean Galen, a property developer in south-west France, who said he received his first two shots but declined a refresher. He was furious and concerned about the idea of taking a fourth shot, something some French officials hinted at as a possibility.
“Our social life would depend on multiple doses,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”
Regarding the matrix barcode used in vaccination detection apps, he said, “I don’t want to become a QR code.”
Macron’s allies, however, insist that the president speak for a whopping majority. Prime Minister Jean Castex told BFM-TV on Thursday that Macron could “speak out loud what many people think deep inside” and described vaccination as a “bourgeois” gesture for those who are able.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal acted similarly in front of reporters on Wednesday.
“Let’s say openly: Who is messing up whose life today?” He asked. “It’s the ones who are against vaccines.”
This was reported by special correspondent El-Faizy from Paris and the Times King employee from Washington. The special correspondent Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.