There are teething troubles on day one of France’s controversial health pass for accessing public places. Outside Montpellier’s main art gallery, the Musée Fabre, a security guard squints at a visitor’s smartphone. “I can’t see your pass,” he says. The visitor tries shielding it from the severe Mediterranean sun: “I don’t see anything either. I can’t even see whether my phone’s unlocked or not.”
From Wednesday, showing either a health pass, or proof of a negative PCR test dated to within 48 hours, is obligatory in France for anyone wishing to access any cultural or leisure facilities with a capacity of more than 50 people. This includes cinemas, art galleries, libraries, museums, sports centres and work-related events. Cafes, restaurants and trains will fall under the measures at the beginning of August.
The measures are part of Macron’s push to reignite France’s flagging vaccination drive amid a fourth wave of the pandemic. With 18,000 cases reported in the 24 hours prior to 20 July, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal described the Delta variant-driven surge as “stratospheric”; the national week-on-week infection rate has jumped 125% to 86 per 100,000, well above the national alert threshold of 50.
As holidaymakers flock to the coast, the southern Occitanie region is one of the most seriously affected. The infection rate in the Hérault department, of which Montpellier is the capital, has risen to 202.7 per 100,000, more than a 200% increase week on week.
A calm queue has formed in the cavernous foyer of the Mediathèque Emile Zola, the city’s main library – except for one grumbling pensioner. “I’ve had one injection,” the old man protests. “I’m afraid you need two,” he is told. He storms off, carping to himself.
Seham, a 26-year-old student, is also turned away, because she doesn’t have the necessary certification. She thought the measures started in September. “It’s wrecked my day a bit,” she says.
Sipping an espresso outside the glass doors of the cinema Diagonal, manager Charlie Pereniguez, 36, points out that the new health pass has already caused a drop in advance ticket sales nationwide. “It’s really dropped us in the shit having to check everyone. We’re not going to buy a smartphone for each till, just for two or three months.”
Perched on a wall waiting for Montpellier’s MOCO contemporary art museum to open, Marc Combes, 70, says: “People have started doing whatever they liked, so we have to tighten the screws.” But he’s worried that they could a step on the road to some form of “dictatorship”.
It’s the kind of debate taking place nationwide, with some protesters who marched against the health pass last weekend wearing yellow Star of David badges, causing huge controversy. Around 5,500 people took the streets in Montpellier last weekend, one of over 130 protests that gathered just over 110,000 people across the country.
More than 3.7 million people booked a first-injection appointment in the week following Macron’s 12 July address. Just over 45% of the population is now fully vaccinated.
But Macron, in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, must mollify the country’s deeply ingrained anti-vax contingent. Two vaccination centres have been physically attacked in recent days.
And the health pass has not yet hit the heart of French culture: cafes and restaurants. Outside L’Odyssée, a bistro near Montpellier’s main station, owner Azak Attila, 41, says checking all his clientele will be unworkable: “Even many of the ones who are vaccinated, they say they’ll refuse to show their pass on principle.” But if he does not do it he could be subject to a penalty of up to €45,000.
“I think Macron wanted to frighten people into getting vaccinated, but without ordering them directly to do it,” he says. “It’s a bit dictatorial – I know about this kind of behaviour from when I lived in Turkey. But I never thought it would happen this way in France.”