There are teething problems on the first day of the controversial French health pass for access to public places. Outside Montpellier’s main art gallery, the Musée Fabre, a guard peers at a visitor’s smartphone. “I can’t see your pass,” he says. The visitor tries to shield it from the harsh Mediterranean sun: “I don’t see anything either. I can’t even see if my phone is unlocked or not.”
From Wednesday, the presentation of a health pass or proof of a negative PCR test within 48 hours will be mandatory in France for anyone wishing to access cultural or leisure facilities with a capacity of more than 50 people. This includes cinemas, art galleries, libraries, museums, sports centers and work-related events. Cafés, restaurants and trains will be subject to the measures at the beginning of August.
The measures are part of Macron’s drive to relaunch France’s flag amid a fourth wave of the pandemic. With 18,000 cases reported in the 24 hours leading up to July 20, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal described the rise caused by Delta variants as “stratospheric”; the national week-to-week infection rate has increased by 125% to 86 per 100,000, well above the national alert threshold of 50.
While holidaymakers flock to the coast, the southern region of Occitanie has been one of the hardest hit. The infection rate in the Hérault department, of which Montpellier is the capital, has risen to 202.7 per 100,000, an increase of more than 200% week on week.
A quiet line has formed in the cavernous foyer of the Mediathèque Emile Zola, the city’s main library, save for one grumbling retiree. “I’ve had one injection,” the old man protests. “I’m afraid you’ll need two,” he is told. He storms off, moaning to himself.
Seham, a 26-year-old student, is also rejected because she does not have the necessary certification. She thought the measures started in September. “It kind of ruined my day,” she says.
While sipping an espresso outside the glass doors of the Diagonal cinema, manager Charlie Pereniguez, 36, points out that the new health pass has already led to a drop in ticket sales nationwide. “It really got us in trouble to have to check everyone. We are not going to buy a smartphone for every checkout, just for two or three months.”
Marc Combes, 70, sits on a wall waiting for the opening of the MOCO contemporary art museum in Montpellier: “People have started doing what they wanted, so we need to tighten the screws.” But he worries that they may take a step towards some form of ‘dictatorship’.
It’s the kind of debate that’s happening across the country, with some protesters marching against the health pass wearing yellow Star of David insignia last weekend, sparking a huge controversy. About 5,500 people took to the streets in Montpellier last weekend, one of more than 130 protests that gathered just over 110,000 people across the country.
More than 3.7 million people booked an appointment for the first injection the week after Macron’s July 12 speech. Just over 45% of the population is now fully vaccinated.
But Macron must appease the country’s entrenched antivax contingent in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. Two vaccination centers have been physically attacked in recent days.
And the health pass has not yet touched the heart of French culture: cafes and restaurants. Outside L’Odyssée, a bistro near Montpellier’s main train station, owner Azak Attila, 41, says it will be unworkable to check on all his customers: “Even many of those who have been vaccinated say they refuse on principle. to show their pass. But if he doesn’t, he could be fined up to €45,000.
“I think Macron wanted to scare people into getting vaccinated, but without directing them to do it,” he says. “It’s a bit dictatorial – I know this kind of behavior from the time I lived in Turkey. But I never thought it would happen this way in France.”