During the current season of discontent in France, yellow has become the color of protest. There are, not surprisingly, the renewed bursts of yellow vests—the emblem of the country’s massive anti-establishment demonstrations in 2019–20. More surprisingly, perhaps, a growing number of protesters against the government’s new COVID measures are sporting six-pointed yellow stars—the emblem worn by French Jews embarking on French trains for Auschwitz beginning in 1942.*
The merging of gilets jaunes or étoiles jaunes, in turn, have tripped yellow warning lights that are blinking furiously not just for the French state but also for the state of historical knowledge.
Earlier this month, two days before this year’s Bastille Day celebrations, a grim-faced President Emmanuel Macron gave a nationally televised address. Seated in front of an image of the Eiffel Tower—the 19th century testament to the vigor of French technology and republican ingenuity—Macron announced that the rocketing infection rate coupled with the flattening of the vaccination rate had forced his government’s hand. All medical personnel, Macron warned, had to be vaccinated by September 15th. Those failing to do so would be subject to unspecified sanctions.
More importantly, if only because it would affect the millions of French not yet vaccinated, Macron announced the creation of a “passe sanitaire” or health pass. Those who are fully vaccinated or have tested negative are free to enter commercial and cultural sites, as well as use long-distance transport. As for those who are not vaccinated, well, tant pis. After July 21, nearly 70 million French will, quite literally, find themselves on or off the bus.
(Businesses that refuse or neglect to check their customers risk being thrown under the bus, subject to a series of escalating fines.)
The stark terms of this quid pro quo reflect the stark predicament now facing Macron. With the rate of infections increasing 125 percent over the course one week, a fourth wave of the pandemic is poised to crash over France this summer.
Alarmed health officials are warning that hospital ICUs will again overflow, though this time not with those who could not get vaccinated, but with those who could yet refused to get vaccinated. Such an eventuality will have not just seismic social and economic consequences, but also political consequences for the elections next spring, in which Macron will be fighting for reelection to a second term.
Macron’s decision to renege on his earlier promises not to impose a health pass made him appear somehow both dictatorial and dithering. In his speech, Macron explained that by imposing the pass instead of a full lockdown, the government “is pushing you to get yourselves vaccinated.” But this goal can be viewed in two very different ways. Emmanuel Rusch, a public health expert, observed that while many believe the policy reintroduces “individual liberties by limiting restrictions, others believe those liberties are violated precisely because of these restrictions.” In either case, Rusch concluded, Macron’s declaration will test the country’s “appetite for laws that constrain and language that commands.”
The response to the speech was as swift as it was split. For many, the push was clearly what they needed: a record number of vaccination requests, more than 1 million, were made the day after Macron’s speech. Others pushed back. According to an IPSOS poll, more than 60 percent of respondents support Macron’s decision to restrict access to commercial spaces to vaccinated individuals. Yet early one quarter, a majority of whom identify as members of the Rassemblement National, the extreme rightwing party led by Marine Le Pen, are adamantly opposed to such measures. As is often the case in France, the political and ideological extremes met, with those on the far right finding themselves in the company of many on the far left. The leader of the extreme leftwing La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, predicted that the proposed laws would lead to a “society of permanent control and conflict.” Similarly, Marine Le Pen tweeted that the measures would result in a “ominous decline of personal liberties.”
Yet, both leaders also took a pass on appearing in the anti-pass protests that took place last Saturday, with more than 100,000 protesters gathered in several French cities, and over 10,000 streaming along Paris’s boulevards. Not only did Mélenchon and Le Pen avoid joining the throngs, but they were equally careful in walking the thin line between the anti-pass and anti-vaccine movements. They insisted on both the benefits of the vaccines and the balefulness of Macron’s proposals, all the while warning their followers who did join the protests not to engage in what Mélenchon called “inappropriate comparisons.”
What he meant by this was made clear by protesters both in Paris and the provinces.
Dotting the throngs of demonstrators, a number of whom identified with the gilets jaunes, were placards declaring that Macron’s proposals were not just authoritarian—a word used often by Mélenchon—but fascist. Other signs made comparisons to the wartime occupation, rhyming “dictature sanitaire” with “pass nazitaire” or superimposing Hitler’s moustache on an image of Macron.
Others went even further, connecting delusional dots between the Holocaust and health pass. In a riff on the infamous motto over the gates at Auschwitz, “Arbeit macht frei,” one protester held a sign declaring “the health pass makes you free.” Other demonstrators either wore or held signs with the jaune étoile, or yellow star of David. This was perhaps the most unsettling comparison, given the role that French officials played during the occupation in both imposing the star on French Jews and rounding them up for deportation to the death camps. As one protester helpfully explained to a journalist, “Macron is doing exactly the same thing with his health pass that Vichy did with the star: forcing you to identify yourself.”
Predictably, politicians from the far left to far right rushed to be the first to denounce these comparisons. No less predictably, the expressions of outrage, particularly from those, like Le Pen and Mélenchon, with a predilection for conspiracy theories and a bent for authoritarian rule, will have no more impact than the health warnings on a cigarette pack. As the words and actions of American Republican politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Jim Walsh of Washington remind us, Americans are hardly immune to the virus of moral opacity and historical stupidity. Nor are we any more free than is France of yet other politicians who knowingly enable those espouse these imbecilities as well as embrace the voters who believe them.
What makes the spread of this “virus” in France especially disturbing, though, is the immediacy of both its near past and near future. Last Saturday’s demonstrations took place on the 79th anniversary of the grand “rafle” or round-up by Paris police of French and foreign Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942. Dubbed “Vent du printemps,” or “Spring Wind,” the police operation rounded up 7,000 men, women and children easily identified by the yellow star they were forced to wear on their clothing or armbands. Nearly all of them were eventually packed off to Auschwitz; nearly none of them returned.
Just as the proximity of this past has not quieted some in France, the approach of next year’s elections reminds others of the fragility of their democracy.
Weakened by a fierce pandemic, a flailing economy and a fragmenting society, Macron has failed to convince the country that he deserves a second term of office. While the polls record a slight improvement since the early spring, 65 percent of respondents nevertheless remain “dissatisfied” with Macron’s performance in office.
At the same time, however, Macron is doing his very best to guarantee that his opponent in 2022 will once again be Le Pen. Not only is her negative rating greater than Macron’s, but the threat she holds for democracy in France is even greater. Just as the choice for this summer for a majority of French is the less-bad alternative of the health pass, the choice next spring will be for the less-bad alternative of the president who is responsible for it.
Unless, of course, the health pass fails to stem the coming fourth wave. Then the election will be wide open, as will Le Pen’s chances.
Correction, July 21, 2021: This post originally misstated that protesters are wearing five-pointed yellow stars. They are six-pointed stars.