French President Emmanuel Macron is known as a shrewd politician who carefully calibrates his public statements. So when he used pungent language this week to talk about how his government should treat those who choose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, hardly anyone interpreted it as a slip of the tongue.
Across western Europe – which like much of the world is dealing with the spread of wildfires of Omicron, the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus – vaccine-hesitant are under increasing official pressure to get vaccinated, if they can. And it triggers a passionate backlash.
In one European country after another, public health restrictions keep tightening. Italy has declared a vaccination mandate for people over 50. The largest party in the German governing coalition has said it will decide by the end of March whether to try to push through a universal vaccination mandate.
Austria plans to strengthen the enforcement of existing measures prohibiting unvaccinated people from frequenting many public places. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants vaccinations to remain voluntary, but blasted what he called “gibberish” on social media by anti-vaccine campaigners on Thursday.
As the pandemic stretches into a third year, public frustration – and reluctance to use lockdowns as a tool to stem the spread of the virus – has put a strain on the debate over how the world’s most advanced economies world are expected to lead the next phase of long and a debilitating battle against a contagion that has killed more than 5.4 million people worldwide.
In France, Omicron is breaking records for the number of cases as more than 90% of people over 12 have received at least two doses of the vaccine. It helped galvanize France’s lower house on Thursday to approve stricter requirements for obtaining the necessary pass to visit bars, restaurants, cinemas and other indoor public spaces.
If France’s upper house approves the measure, which could happen next week, a negative coronavirus test will no longer be enough. To participate in most forms of public life – going to concerts and sporting events, boarding flights and taking long-distance trains – people will have to prove, from January 15, that they have received the doses. recommended supplements of the vaccine.
The French president, who faces the April elections, sparked an uproar on Tuesday when, in a forum with readers of Le Parisien newspaper, he used a crude barnyard-style epithet meant to express his desire to cause intense discomfort among the unvaccinated by further restricting their access to public life.
“When my freedoms threaten those of others, I become someone irresponsible,” Macron said, adding: “Someone who is irresponsible is not a citizen.”
This sentiment did not suit some of Macron’s compatriots, including lawyer Samir Kahoul, who had willingly lined up for gunfire but hesitated for the president to question whether the unvaccinated were in fact citizens. of lesser importance.
“We are blaming a fraction of the population for the disaster,” said Kahoul, who lives in the Paris suburbs. “Mandatory vaccines would be less hypocritical. “
In Germany, many of those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated report feeling socially excluded as a result. Some women who don’t want to be vaccinated are even speeding up their plans to start a family and take government-paid maternity leave to avoid getting the vaccine to meet employer demands.
Dagmar Rossner, a gynecologist who practices outside Berlin, said several of her patients hoped employers’ vaccination mandates would ease by their return from a year of maternity leave, during which most their salaries would be paid by the state.
“They wanted to start a family at some point anyway, but decided to start right away because of all the pressure,” she said. “Some of my unvaccinated patients say they feel unwelcome all over the place.”
German authorities are reporting a burgeoning underground market for false evidence of vaccination by those seeking to circumvent the restrictions. In Berlin, police said they confiscated more than 1,100 of these false documents last year and brought charges against those who attempted to use them. According to German reports, criminal syndicates charge between 200 and 300 euros – around 225 to 340 dollars – for counterfeits.
Many Germans, aware of their history under Communist and Nazi rule, are also reluctant to have a possible national vaccine registry, saying it goes against the country’s data privacy laws.
And the anti-vaccination movement, although still relatively small, has intensified, with protests sometimes escalating into violence. On Monday, more than 35,000 people took part in protests in which police were hit by bottles and firebombs.
In a number of countries, such as the United States, the vaccine debate has become increasingly politicized. Macron’s vulgarity was sardonically echoed by far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who told RTL radio on Thursday that the best targets would be crime bosses and drug traffickers.
The message has fallen on the receptive ears of voters such as Jean Galen, a real estate developer in southwestern France, who said he received his first two injections but declined a recall. He was angry and fearful of firing a fourth shot, which some French officials have hinted at as a possibility.
“Our societal life would depend on multiple doses,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
Referring to the matrix barcode used in proof of vaccination applications, he said, “I don’t want to become a QR code.”
Macron’s allies, however, insist that the president speak for a majority that is fed up. Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday on BFM television that Macron could “say out loud what many people think deep down”, describing being vaccinated, for those who are capable of it, as a “citizen” gesture.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, took a similar approach.
“Frankly speaking: who is wasting whose life today? ” He asked. “These are the ones who oppose vaccines.”
Special envoy El-Faizy reported from Paris and Times writer King of Washington. Special Envoy Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.