France defends tougher vaccine rules as bookings soar

·3-min read
Over 1.7 million people have booked a jab, most of them under 35, since Macron's speech

The French government defended Tuesday a decision to impose Covid tests for unvaccinated people who want to eat in restaurants or take long-distance trips, as the country looks to avoid a surge in more contagious Delta cases.

President Emmanuel Macron announced the tougher measures Monday, including mandatory vaccinations for healthcare and retirement home workers, prompting a surge in bookings for the jab.

But critics accused the president of discriminating against sceptics or those who will not be fully vaccinated before the "health pass" 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," he said, adding that after a year of studying the vaccines "the time of doubting is long past."

The rules will be relaxed for teenagers who have only been able to get the jabs since mid-June -- "Making summer hell is out of the question," Attal said.

- Dire projections -

The Delta variant is now causing the majority of the 4,000 to 5,000 new cases per day in France, a figure that could jump to 35,000 by August without new containment measures, the Pasteur Institute warned Monday.

Macron's speech sparked a record surge in vaccine bookings, with over 1.7 million people getting appointments as of Tuesday afternoon, most of them under 35, according to the head of the Doctolib reservation site.

And Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Twitter that 792,000 jabs had been administered Tuesday, a new daily record, adding that "this momentum needs to grow and continue in the coming weeks."

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

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

And free Covid tests will end in September to further encourage vaccinations, Macron added in a speech watched by 22 million people.

He also announced mandatory vaccinations 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-fourths (76 percent) of French people support the required vaccines for health workers as well as the travel restrictions, according to an Elabe poll Tuesday, while 58 percent backed the restaurant rule.

- Objections -

But cinema and restaurant owners 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 that 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.

Around 35.5 million people -- just over 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.

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