What is it with the city of Toulon? On the face of it, it has no exceptional grounds for grievance. It is a bustling military port, home to the French Mediterranean fleet, framed by crusty limestone hills, and located on the threshold of the Cōte d'Azur amid beaches and pine-scented coves. Yet, more people are turning out in Toulon even than in Paris for weekly demonstrations against President Macron's coercive enforcement of the passe sanitaire, or Covid vaccination passport.
You now need a passe sanitaire to visit any bar or restaurant in France, (even an outdoor terrasse), any cinema, nightclub, theatre, art gallery, government building, festival or big shopping centre. The passe carries a QR code confirming that you have received a double vaccination. A negative Covid test from the previous day is also acceptable, though tests will cease to come free of charge in mid-October. Large queues stretch outside the test marquees set up by pharmacies and clinics.
Polls show that a solid majority of voters support the passe sanitaire laws. Vaccination rates have soared, and more than 40 million people have now had two vaccinations, comfortably ahead of target. And yet, a significant minority chooses to interpret these rules as a standing affront to the fundamental liberties guaranteed for a citizen of the Republic. Each Saturday since the restrictions were announced, vigorous demonstrations have been held in towns and cities across France, occasionally culminating in the traditional melée of missiles, tear gas and baton charges. Some people have even reportedly turned to the desperate recourse of going for lunch in Belgium.
In recent weeks, both the numbers and the vehemence of the protests have diminished, though organisers hope to crank it all up again after the holidays. In our city of Montpellier, week five saw 7,500 marchers on the streets, against 10,000 a week earlier. Nationwide, the turnout was put at 214,845, down from 237,000 the previous Saturday (provisional estimates for this past weekend, week six, have the national total at 175,000). Yet in Toulon, 40% smaller than Montpellier, 22,000 hit the streets: up from 19,000 the previous week, four times the turnout in its bigger neighbour Marseille, and 8,000 more than were reckoned to be out on the streets of the capital.
Some suggest that the numbers are swollen by the holidaymakers who flock to the Cōte d'Azur in August, but it is not a persuasive argument. People don't go to Toulon for their holidays. More likely, the anomaly is simply a product of the city's reputation for reliable bolshiness. Toulon was the first substantial municipality in all France to fall to National Front control, way back in 1995 when the Front was still under the command of Jean-Marie Le Pen, truculent founder of the family firm. Its politics have remained volatile, and the people who arrive there in varying degrees of penury from elsewhere around the Mediterranean are not always afforded a hospitable welcome. This is a cantankerous town.
Which fits because, nationally, the visible leadership of the protests largely hails from the surly edges of mainstream politics. Marine Le Pen, inheritor of the dynastic charm, is a notable voice, as is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, serial hotspur of the hard-left, and Florian Philippot of Les Patriotes, a further-out-there breakaway from the Front. Many of those taking part are proud veterans of the gilets jaunes disturbances of two years ago, and use their old social media networks to rally supporters. They might fairly be characterised as people who stand in trenchant opposition to just about everything, and blame Emmanuel Macron for all of it.
But it is too easy, and also wrong, to paint the totality of vaccine refuseniks as loopy malcontents. There are deep and genuine strong feelings against the element of compulsion which has been attached to the vaccination programme, and one is constantly taken aback to find that people one knows to be measured and thoughtful are actively against the passe sanitaire: and prepared to fence themselves off from ever more of French life in order to make their point.
One such is a friend of my wife's, an educated and cultured man, and well-travelled, including regular trips to Scotland to see his girlfriend in Edinburgh. Except that he can't go at present because he refuses to be vaccinated. Nor can he attend the language conversation group through which my wife knows him, because it meets in a bar and he can't get in without a passe sanitaire.
Such stubbornness is frankly bewildering for anyone who isn't French. Part of it is a traditional suspicion of the whole idea of vaccination, however unlikely that might sound in the birthplace of Louis Pasteur. It references a series of past scams and scandals, some real and others apocryphal. Into the latter category fell a conspiracy theory that a 1990's drive to vaccinate children against Hepatitis B was behind a spike in MS cases. Into the former, came the tragedy of the HIV-contaminated blood for haemophiliacs, a row over the taxpayer bill for the H1N1 vaccine, and the scandal of Mediator, an appetite suppressant that killed some of the diabetics it was meant to help.
This narrative provides some of the more rational reasons advanced for Covid vaccine defiance, but it is more pretext than cause. The real spark is the perceived assault on personal liberty. The words 'Liberté, Équalité, Fraternité' are to be found on lintels and letterheads everywhere in France. The simple truth, romantic though it may sound, is that people take them very seriously as the founding rubric of the Republic. They are like the stars and stripes to an American. Disrespecting them can provoke the same kind of fury a flag-burner might encounter in the US.
At which point, one longs to suggest loudly (as, to be fair, many are doing in an intense debate across French media) that the protestors go home and read some John Stuart Mill. Individuals, said Mill, should enjoy the maximum possible liberty, consistent with it not reducing the liberty of others. In other words, you should be able to make your own choices as long as they don't hurt other people. Which, it seems plain, is where the anti-vaxxers' case collapses.
Vaccination is a measure that affects – benefits – not just the individual concerned. The more people able to achieve something close to immunity, the better the chance that we will all be able eventually to recover normal life from the clutches of the virus. An unvaccinated person is a health threat not just to him or herself, but to the wider public health. The bigger the pool of unvaccinated people, the easier it is for the virus to spread and mutate.
And this is surely the crux of the argument. Vaccination refusal may strike a small blow for liberty, but it strikes a bigger one for selfishness. The majority of the public, here as in the UK, understands this. The more of us who are vaccinated, the safer we all shall be. As the song almost puts it, don't stay away, Toulon.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster