PARIS – The deal was simple: get vaccinated and resume a normal life.
In a country with high levels of doubts about Covid-19 vaccines and citizens quick to challenge authority, the deal was an unexpected success. He made France one of the most vaccinated countries in Europe, called off street protests by government critics and boosted the reelection bid for President Emmanuel Macron as a semblance of normal life returned. Even diehard skeptics became believers, at least for a while.
“I thought to myself, great, everyone is going to be vaccinated and in three months everything will be fine, we will be free again,” said Marc Olissone, 60, who was visiting Paris from the north of the country. France and initially resisted being shot. “I got the vaccine because it’s the only way for me to go to the movies or visit friends in Paris.
“I thought,” said Mr. Olissone, a former entertainment industry producer who has worked in a funeral home since the start of the pandemic. “But I don’t believe it anymore.”
As the Omicron variant tears itself apart across France, it strains the unwritten social contract that underlies the government’s fight against the virus and undermines the assumptions Mr. Macron – and many world leaders – hold onto. are supported. More than previous variations, it redefines what it means to be fully immunized, creating a new urgency for booster injections and raising the barriers to access a normality that turns out to be fleeting and, increasingly for many, illusory.
Even though vaccines aren’t as effective at blocking Omicron infections, scientists believe they help keep the disease mild for most people and early studies suggest they keep most people off. hospital. And while health officials still view vaccines as the way out of the pandemic – especially if more people get vaccinated – their availability has not ended the scourge as quickly as hoped.
This sure seems to complicate the ability of leaders around the world to get their exhausted citizens to obey the rules of Covid. In France, the stakes are high for Mr. Macron, who made a bet this summer on the double power of vaccines – which he hailed as an “asset that changes everything” – and a health pass that allowed, and lastly, to eat and socialize indoors with relative safety.
Even now – as France reported 206,243 new cases in the past 24 hours on Thursday, the second day in a row in 200,000 – the government has not hesitated. On Monday, he resisted pressure from doctors and scientists to impose a New Year’s Eve curfew or postpone the start of the school year to next week, rejecting the stricter restrictions put in place recently by many of France’s neighbors, although the city of Paris announced on Wednesday that mask- wearing it outside would become compulsory again.
The government has also shortened the time between a second shot and a recall. In the past month, he’s reduced the wait from six months to five, then four, and finally three.
“The next, will it be every two weeks?” Said Olivier Toulisse, 44, a resident of eastern France who was walking on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. “I had a lot of hope in vaccines, honestly. I really thought they were going to get us out of there.
Franck Chauvin, president of the government’s High Council for Public Health and member of a scientific panel advising Macron on the pandemic, acknowledged the corrosive effect that Omicron had after a relative period of peace since last summer .
“The emergence of new variants, the debate around vaccinations – and we are seeing it now with Omicron – all of this is forcing us to redefine this social contract,” Chauvin said in an interview.
Beyond vaccines, Chauvin said France should probably focus more on “greater civic responsibility”, calling for more caution in social interactions. He said this development became evident when many citizens were tested before joining their families for the holidays.
Stewart Chau, analyst for polling firm Viavoice, said public support for the government’s handling of the pandemic has started to wane. “This social contract will not work if there are no tangible results behind it,” he said.
Approval for the government’s handling of the crisis started to increase last March as vaccination started to take off and peaked in August, at 50%, following the introduction of the health pass, but has declined over the past month, according to polling firm Elabe.
The Omicron challenge also came at a particularly difficult time, when government pressure to immunize children aged 5 to 11, while voluntary, sparked further concerns and schisms.
Since the early stages of the pandemic, the French, like others elsewhere, have been called upon to think and act for the greater good: wear a mask, not necessarily to protect themselves, but for others. Protect the elderly. Get vaccinated to prevent the virus from circulating.
Frédéric Worms, a French philosopher who has studied the growing fatigue resulting from the pandemic, said the introduction of vaccination for children between the ages of 5 and 11 has sharpened the debate about self and the common good.
“It could push people into a free-for-all,” he said. “There is a strong anxiety, a psychological dimension, in the fact that we would sacrifice ourselves to save our children.
According to an Elabe poll, more than two-thirds of parents of eligible children are opposed to their vaccination while 51% of the general population is in favor. Experience in the United States and other countries, where a significant number of children in this age group have already been vaccinated, shows that side effects are rare. But many parents are reluctant to expose their children to new vaccines because very young people rarely get sick from the virus.
In a park in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, Sandrine Gianati, 40, looked after her two sons, aged 5 and 7. She, her husband, her relatives – all had been vaccinated except her children.
“I did it to protect others, out of solidarity,” she said. “And when I see that the unvaccinated still don’t want to be vaccinated, I accept that, it’s their choice. But I don’t want my children to be vaccinated for adults who refuse to be. ”
Seventy-seven percent of French people have received at least two doses, or 90 percent of people 12 years and older. But some 4 million adults have yet to receive a single injection, and the unvaccinated disproportionately represents those hospitalized or dying.
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“I don’t want to sacrifice my children in the name of solidarity,” said Ms. Gianati, believing that it is too early to understand the long-term effects of new vaccines on the very young. “Me, I tell myself that I am married, I had my two children, I lived my life, and if I have problems later, it was my choice. But I don’t want to impose my choice on my children, who are too young to make their own decisions. ”
Omicron appears to once again shake people’s confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic. In the early stages, the government’s floundering response – and especially its misleading and contradictory statements about mask wearing – created deep mistrust among many French people.
Just a year ago, as France launched its vaccination campaign, an Ipsos poll of adults in 15 countries found confidence in a Covid-19 vaccine to be lowest in France. Only 40% of French people said they would get vaccinated, compared to 77% in Britain and 69% in the United States.
But the government continued a campaign whose full strategy would emerge over the following months. Members of the president’s scientific advisory committee, including Chauvin, provided clues in an April article in The Lancet.
Above all, they write, the new approach should be based on a clear and transparent social contract.
In July, Mr Macron laid out the terms of the deal in a national speech.
“For our protection and for our unity, we must act to vaccinate all French people”, he declared, “because it is the only way to a normal life”.
Get vaccinated and get a health pass, that was the message. The unvaccinated would be gradually expelled from public spaces.
The policy sparked protests and raised concern in a mass movement, like the Yellow Vests, whose protests against the government’s economic policies crippled much of France three years ago. But protests fizzled out as the government struck a winning balance between carrot and stick.
Today, less than four months before the presidential elections, the government is betting that it can maintain this balance against Omicron. He asked the French to get their booster shots faster than expected. It is also a question of tightening the eligibility of the health pass by no longer allowing people to obtain it with negative tests but only with proof of vaccination.
Disclosing the new terms of the agreement, Prime Minister Jean Castex made no promise of a return to normal life. On the contrary, Mr Castex said: “It all feels like a never-ending movie.”