Perhaps it’s a comment on both the limited online attention span and just how momentary sensation has now become. When the striking images of the first global lockdown – all those eerie photos of the world’s most famous capital cities deserted of people – went viral just over a year ago, reaction swiftly shifted from open-jawed shock at how these landmark locations now resembled the set of a Hollywood movie about the apocalypse to jaded shoulder-shrugging, suggesting everyone ceased to find the imagery remotely strange with 24 hours. Yeah, whatever, seen it. Yet what those empty tourist spots inadvertently highlighted was how a persistent headache for certain beleaguered world leaders had been unexpectedly resolved overnight. It’s almost hard to recall now – because life before Covid seems so distant and unreal – but prior to the coronavirus, many of those streets now devoid of a human presence had been teeming with people who hadn’t come to take selfies in the shadow of an iconic monument. Pre-BLM street protest was geographically localised and concerned with issues that concerned the majority; remember all that trouble in Hong Kong? China at least had something to thank its clumsiest scientists for there, for sure. And what about Paris?
By the end of 2019, the coalition of anti-Macron forces that went under the collective moniker of Gilets jaunes protests (courtesy of their adoption of a recognisable blue-collar dress-code) had established themselves as emcees of weekly shindigs in the French capital, evoking memories of 1968 and placing the waning authority of Emmanuel Macron in peril with each increasingly angry battle between yellow-jacket protestors and the gendarmerie. 45 consecutive weeks of this in Paris had reduced the centre of the city to a no-go area for tourists at weekends as the economy took a nosedive with every smashed restaurant and luxury store window in and around the Champs-Élysées. After a year, the protests had also spread to other French cities such as Strasbourg, Montpellier and Rouen, and it was difficult to discern an end in sight until Macron was delivered the lifeline of Covid-19.
In an instant, the democratic right to protest, which always seems so integral to the French character, was abruptly taken away along with every other civil liberty. As those images of the world’s great capital cities had shown, Paris was far-from unique in this sudden clearing of the streets; but for President Macron, a convenient by-product of the emergency measures was the painless removal of an obstinate thorn in his side. When one final attempt to revive the protests took place in defiance of lockdown in March 2020, even some of the movement’s leaders stayed at home and advised their followers to do likewise. The boil, it appeared, had been lanced. The power and authority of Monsieur Macron having been unexpectedly salvaged now gave the President the opportunity to flex his muscles and the past week has seen the outcome of this existential bodybuilding.
On Monday, Macron confirmed to the French people that they were living in a two-tier society and one presumes he knows which tier his detractors belong to. An existing rule applying to nightclubs, whereby proof of a negative Covid test or vaccination is required to gain entry, was to be extended to leisure and cultural centres, shortly to be followed by everything else people might wish to engage in when stepping out of doors. Anyone employed by the French hospitality industry as well as those working for airlines, hospitals, care homes and railways will now be legally required to submit to vaccination or else will find themselves out of a job. Macron hasn’t quite reached the extremes of St Jacinda of New Zealand’s North Korean-style assertion that the only trustworthy guardian of the truth is government, but he’s capitalising on the convenient suppression of dissenting voices by laying down the law while he can.
Maybe what’s so striking about Macron’s authoritarian stance is the fact that our Gallic cousins have been especially sceptical when it comes to the vaccine. Clinging to the quaint belief that control of one’s body should be an autonomous choice, just under half of the French population have so far resisted a medical procedure that is now being thrust upon them as compulsory if they wish to continue being active members of society. In addition, Macron has also indicated mandatory jabs will no longer be free of charge as of the autumn, rubbing (one might say) salt in the wound of liberté, égalité and fraternité. We think we’ve got it bad here when it comes to a worrying lack of Parliamentary debate on issues that affect us all in the current climate; but Macron has excelled in evading such debate altogether by using (abusing?) his status, rushing through the law on Covid passports for access to nightclubs by invoking Presidential decree, and it’s highly likely he’ll do the same when seeking to turn his latest proposals into law. Gives you food for thought whenever the subject of republicanism on these shores rears its head, doesn’t it.
At one time, both the French and the British people could be relied upon to admirably resist the kind of totalitarian measures more familiar to European neighbours such as Germany or Italy; bloody-mindedness seemed to be characteristic traits we shared with our brothers across the Channel. But the disappointingly compliant response to Project Fear on this side of the Continental divide has perhaps persuaded Macron that he can get away with it on home soil; yet he’s clearly figured he can push the boat out even further. What he’s now proposing has taken post-lockdown restrictions into unprecedented territory that one cannot help but suspect are being studied by other European leaders as a possible blueprint for the way forward. Basically telling the French people that no vaccine equates with no life, either of the working or social variety, is a bold statement that feels as though it goes against the grain of everything we associate with the French and their history of rebelling in the face of such decrees from on high.
The long-running Gilets jaunes protests were familiar in their characteristically French response to authority overreaching itself, though it’s hard to see how resistance can now be manifested when confronted by rules and regulations that place the people in a position where choice is no longer an issue if one wants to survive in this brave new world. Is there a whiff of triumphant revenge in this move by Macron? Neutered by the protests that wrecked the capital city for the best part of a year, Monsieur President has reasserted his authority by exceeding any demonstrations of it he was able to call upon before he received the powers to shut society down and redraw the map of discourse. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of vaccines being hired by the state as a kidnapper holding freedom hostage, Macron’s actions seem to remove the option of personal choice figuring somewhere in the picture. If you want to resume living your life, you’ll have to take what the state is offering you…or else.
Maybe to get me in the mood for writing this post, the penning of it has been complemented by a compilation of Serge Gainsbourg’s finest moments playing in the background; as I reach the final paragraph, his reggae-fied interpretation of ‘La Marseillaise’ has just burst out of the speakers. Provoking the ire of right-wing veterans from the Algerian War of Independence upon its release in 1979, Gainsbourg’s controversial version of the French national anthem said something about the nation that hadn’t been addressed before. Not unlike some of this nation’s most famous, contentious (and sadly absent) sons we can no longer turn to for guidance, the French must be wondering what Serge would say if confronted by the current proposals to emanate from the Élysée Palace. Probably problematic…and unprintable, God bless ‘im.
© The Editor