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PARIS — It has been a nail-biting summer for officials at the top of the French government. Would Emmanuel Macron’s controversial decision to force people to carry a vaccine passport if they wanted to visit everywhere from a bar to a museum backfire and fuel the country’s protest movement?
Each week, officials at the Elysée and in the prime minister’s office anxiously waited for the figures on the size of the protests to roll in. Now, as the country approaches its target of giving 50 million people at least one jab by the end of August, many of those officials are heaving a sigh of relief.
“We are patting ourselves on the back, though we know we have not yet reached results that are completely satisfactory,” said one government adviser. “Macron took a firm decision, and the French gave him their vote of confidence. The protests have remained marginal.”
Macron’s decision to bring in the vaccine passport on the eve of the summer holidays was a jaw-dropper.
The COVID immunity pass — a digital or paper certificate that contains proof of vaccination, of immunity or of a negative test — is needed to get into cafés, bars, restaurants, hospitals, museums, galleries, and on trains, planes and coaches. On Monday, the scheme was extended to the employees of all venues that are open to the public.
Although there was some watering down of the plans at first — waiters were told they would not have to check IDs as well as vaccine certificates, and most shopping malls would be exempt — the government held fast.
A lot of people weren’t happy. Every week, protesters take to the streets of Paris, Marseille and other cities, for a variety of reasons. Some are anti-vax, others claim to be pro-liberty and then there are those who are just fed up with Macron. But the figures have not taken off. Last weekend, around 160,000 people took to the streets, down from 175,000 the previous week and 215,000 in mid-August, according to figures from the interior ministry.
Early comparisons with the Yellow Jackets movement that shook the president in 2018 and 2019 have proven wide of the mark. Macron’s rivals also failed to capitalize on discontent, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen reluctant to upset her voters, who are split over the pass, and the Socialists clumsily backing mandatory jabs but not the pass.
Meanwhile, millions have headed to vaccination centers. According to the French prime minister’s office, 12 million people have been vaccinated since Macron announced the introduction of the coronavirus passport.
‘The best moment of his handling of the crisis’
It’s the view of many doctors that the coronavirus passport flattened the curve of the pandemic this summer, just as France was facing a steep third wave fueled by the more contagious Delta variant and the lifting of lockdown measures.
“It saved tens of thousands of lives,” said Martin Blachier, a public health consultant. “The French were reluctant [to get the jab] and he crafted a message that was heard. It was the best moment of his handling of the crisis, maybe even of his tenure.”
The figures so far are looking promising. Some 83 percent of the French population over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to France’s COVID tracker. The number of daily cases has dropped to under 14,000, after peaking at about 24,000 in mid-August. The number of patients in intensive care increased in August but appears to be leveling off at under 3,000.
An uptick in the epidemic is expected with the return of students and pupils to classrooms in September, but “the risk of a cataclysm has been avoided,” said Blachier. According to him, if the vaccination rate had remained where it was before the summer — when less than 50 percent of the population had received a first dose — there would have been a lot more admissions into hospitals, which would have meant overstretched wards and more deaths.
But others are not as enthusiastic about the pass.
“It’s hard to know what impact it had,” said Nicolas Bruder, head of an intensive care unit at the Timone hospital in Marseille. “If you look at the map of France, cases have increased where there have been big gatherings in touristic areas [despite the pass].”
But in his hospital, the introduction of the pass — as well as the announcement that the jab would be mandatory for health workers — led to a leap in vaccination rates. More than 70 percent of his staff are vaccinated, compared to over 50 percent in June.
And that’s the point. Proponents say the health pass has worked because people reacted by getting vaccinated, which protects them from developing serious conditions even if they do get the virus.
“The pass creates a false sense of security because it throws together people who are vaccinated, and therefore can transmit the disease, and people who have been tested negative,” said Blachier. “If people had reacted by getting tested every couple of days, the pass would have had the opposite effect, accelerating the epidemic, and leading to a lot more deaths.”
But they didn’t. “It was a political move, a means to an end. Some wanted to introduce mandatory jabs, but the question was how do we get there,” said the government adviser.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.