The French ‘Freedom Convoy’ was met with an unprecedented and extraordinary degree of state repression and violence.
I saw off pensioners in their camper vans from south-west France on Thursday morning. On Friday evening, there were tanks waiting for them on the streets of Paris. Over 7000 highly armed police ringed the city to prevent people from entering.
The convoy spokespeople – a teacher at a Catholic school and a nurse – had chosen the path of non-confrontation and ‘dialogue’. They said that they would not enter Paris, but would rather meet at a picnic site outside the city, and they invited politicians to meet with them for a discussion and to hear their concerns.
In response, police blocked roads leading to the picnic site, meaning that many convoys were unable to arrive. Supporters bringing food and supplies were also unable to arrive.
A small group of vehicles that attempted a road block protest were dealt with violently, with the police smashing car windows and dragging out their drivers.
In pitched battles protesters were beaten by groups of police, and a young protester went into apparent cardiac arrest while the crowd shouted ‘murderers!’ at police lines. Tear gas was used liberally and hundreds of fines given out. The French state spared no expense, and no military hardware, in order to block protesters from arriving in Paris and to deal with them harshly if they made it through.
The second stage of the convoy was supposed to be Brussels, and the Belgian state lined up in similar military formation. French cars crossing into Belgium on Sunday night posted videos of lines of Belgian police vans and urged their compatriots to make it across the border that night: ‘Leave as quickly as possible, the cavalry is arriving!’
When a group of drivers arrived in Belgium the next morning, they were conducted under armed police escort to an area outside the city, and prevented from entering the city.
This degree of repression shows how covid politics represents an elite politics of public containment. The public must at all costs be kept from influencing the debate. Macron will change measures if and when he is good and ready. This is a question of executive diktat: it is not a matter for public demands, nor for the ‘dialogue’ that the convoy organisers hoped for.
You ask for dialogue, they will send tanks. That is the lesson of the French convoy.
The public sacrifice and solidarity shown in France over the past few days has been extraordinary. People set out for journeys of several days, heading into the unknown, prepared to sleep in their cars and paying hundreds or thousands of euros in petrol costs. They have been met with offers of bed and breakfast, tables of food, even money for petrol.
This was a movement put together on Telegram in a matter of days, with organisers working out maps marked with stopovers and breakfast breaks, and people posting requests or offers of bed and board. It was entirely self-organised, entirely spontaneous. And everyone involved in it has been changed by the experience.
The ‘convoi de la liberté’ may have been stymied, but this is not the end. A section of the public has gained the taste of solitary and making things happen together, and the extreme hostility with which their protests have been met has only strengthened their resolve.
Since the first lockdown, almost two years ago, social life has been assigned a merely provisional status. There is nothing in life that cannot not be cancelled at a moment’s notice – not schools, holidays, dentistry, demonstrations, Christmas, religious worship. Nothing is sacrosanct, nothing has a prior claim to existence.
Lockdowns asserted the state’s primacy over society; they declared social life to be ‘non-essential’. They often occurred with little warning, when people were in the middle of their holidays, or having lunch in a restaurant, and suddenly there was an announcement that at 12pm tomorrow all this would end. The process out of lockdown was a process of reintroducing life but now in a different form – no longer with a self-subsisting authority, but with the status of something provisional, depending on the state for permission to resume. The parts of social life were reintroduced like the sections of an orchestra, each with their own specific set of restrictions by which they must abide in order to exist.
And still, two years later, leaders want to carry on like this. They want to carry on turning social life on and off again, up and down. They take away then bring back masks. They have plans B and C, and no doubt through the entire alphabet, and they leak the contents of their considerations, so that we are aware that the future is entirely uncertain. We may arrange to see our family at Christmas, but we cannot be sure that it will happen; we cannot be sure if we can travel or not, or if we will be able to enter a pub in the New Year.
We are supposed to take our seats as spectators watching this endless serial of regulations, engaging in the prognostication and speculation about what the next rule will be. There is no certainty: when they say they will not do something this often means that they will do it. We are supposed to wait for the latest plans and then obediently follow them. We are supposed to put our lives on hold, to develop our own plan A, B, and C, and D, our own worst case scenarios, depending upon ‘what they decide to do’.
And yet something is cracking. Nearly two years on, people are tiring of it, we are wearying of the dreary show that has become what passes for politics. Nearly half of all Tory backbenchers rebelled on vaccine passports; they did not defeat plan B but they left it limp and without authority. The new mandates on facemasks on UK public transport are being very patchily obeyed. MPs now insist that parliament gets to vote on any new restrictions, rather than the usual method of publishing a statutory instrument the night beforehand.
It is the same in other countries. In France, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, many schools are ignoring the new rules on children wearing masks outside during breaktime. The children tuck their masks under their chins and the teachers say nothing.
Something is cracking – people are becoming restive, and many others are just switching off, they aren’t playing along anymore.
Politicians’ plans B and C can blow around in the wind, like useless bits of paper. They no longer have any gravity or compelling force.
We are starting to feel a different compelling force: to end this tiresome and pointless rigmarole, which turns us into the playthings of ministers and puts our lives indefinitely on hold. We need to live by our plan A again.
The head of the European Union has said that the organisation should ‘lead the discussion’ on ‘mandatory vaccination’.
The first element is genial and sociable: it is a ‘discussion’ about ‘a common approach’. And yet the substance of the issue is brutal: it is the forced injection, against their will, of millions of Europeans.
Behind this statement lies the nature of the political arrangement that exists in the EU.
It is in and through the EU that national political elites affected a retreat from their publics, entering into an elite bureaucratic sphere of common policymaking. In this sphere, policy becomes a question of the administration of populations from above. The question is not what is wanted by people, or what is right, but what is expedient. This intra-elite world becomes the new source of pressure, censure and approval for national leaders, rather than their own publics.
Yet at the same time, there is a faux civic clothing that has been developed to cover the arrangement. Brussels is bristling with rights and civic organisations: there are constant conferences about ‘a soul for Europe’, about building bridges between people, human rights, respect for personal autonomy, understanding differences and diversity. This fine talk is rather like the monarchical trappings that clothed the modern British constitutional state and obfuscate the real operations of power. It is a dressing, a cover, used to disguise the new political arrangement; it serves to give the cold hearted machinations a civic air and democratic trapping.
So nobody should be surprised that those fine-talking European rights organisations are now silent. It is no surprise that those who talked of rights, and dialogue, and the dignity of people, are now silent as Austrians, Germans and Greeks have their Nuremberg rights violated, as the unvaccinated are consigned to their homes and there is a development of new grades of citizen status according to people’s precise medical situation.
The civic robes have been cast off, and the dark heart of the EU political arrangement is being revealed.
Here we see that it is not populism that leads to barbarism – it is elitism, and the elite management of people as if they were things, as if they were objects. The creation of independent bureaucracies turns people into things, their bodies become inert objects to be used and directed by policy. The political elites order people to be vaccinated, then discuss a fund to compensate those who are injured by the vaccination.
Yet the people of Europe are not inert bodies. We are not yet things. European citizens are burning police cars in Rotterdam, taking over Christmas markets in Luxembourg, blocking roads in the French department of Guadalupe, blocking ports in Turin. French towns and cities have had weekly demonstrations since the ‘pass sanitaire’ was imposed in August: every single Saturday, in almost every town, every city.
The French leader of ‘Les Patriotes’, Florian Philippot, is calling for the rebellion against the vaccine pass to be a rebellion against the ‘new oligarchy’, and the EU – towards a world that is ‘more just, more beautiful, more radiant, where the people are respected in their sovereignty, where the people of France can again stand on their feet’.
This points towards a new French revolution, which could lead not only France but also the European continent into a rupture and total disruption of the intra-elite ‘discussion’ – in order to reinstate people as the authors of their own bodies, and the policies of their nation.
The French government ruled that, should covid cases exceed 200 per 100,000, then vaccine passports and masks would be applied on ski lifts. All ski resort employees must be vaccinated, or carry out a laboratory covid test every day. In the run-up to the start of the Pyrenees ski season, nobody knew when or whether the 200 figure would be reached. The government spokesman said that he thought it would, but everyone was watching and waiting, and ski resorts until the last minute said that passes would be ‘possible’. In the end, covid cases reached 230 by last Thursday, and so the Pyrenees ski season began two days later with passes and masks.
Here is a new mode of government. The government creates a benchmark, an index, to which a coercive policy is tied. Then they stand back and wait. When the index is reached, the policy is enacted. Nobody seems to have authored the policy; once the index is created, it seems to exist as a natural condition. It then seems that the policy is enacted by the virus itself.
Of course, requiring people to be vaccinated or wear masks on an open-air ski lift will have no effect on the circulation of the virus. The policy is an – almost arbitrary – restriction, a bureaucratic talisman. It is linked to an equally arbitrary benchmark of covid cases. And so the relationship in the enactment of a policy is between an arbitrary number, and an arbitrary restriction.
Policy occurs, decisions are made, without reference to the people, or what people want. The public figures only as a covid statistic – as cases per 100,000, or an R number – and politicians relate not to the public but to this number. Moreover, politicians eclipse even their own wills: they say that they do not want to restrict skiing, but it appears that cases are rising and they have no choice, that rising cases will trigger the restrictions. And then 200 cases are passed, and they raise their hands and say the restriction must be imposed.
Policy appears as an autonomic phenomenon. Politicians create quantitative mechanisms in order that coercion can be triggered automatically. It appears as if coronavirus is really governing the country. Policy becomes something like the rain or the wind, a natural phenomenon that cannot be reasoned or argued with, or like the remorseless working out of a mathematical formula.
Is there any longer any genuine public health response to the pandemic? Every supposed public health technique – tests, masks, and now vaccines – has changed in meaning, and is now pursued primarily as a symbol of bureaucratic compliance.
Masks were spurned at the start of the pandemic – they became de rigeur only when they assumed the meaning of compliance with an official standard for conduct, and a willingness to distance oneself from others.
Now, most dramatically, we see the same thing with vaccination – which began as a targeted public health intervention for the most at-risk groups, and has morphed into a de facto qualification for citizenship, with the imposition of increasingly harsh vaccine mandates and passports.
Vaccine mandates are occurring at the very moment when it has become clear that vaccines do not prevent transmission – when highly vaccinated countries such as Israel lead the world for infections, and when vaccinated people are testing positive at similar rates as the unvaccinated.
Yet Italy last week mandated vaccines for all workers, condemning the unvaccinated to joblessness. San Fransisco will require 5-11 year olds to be vaccinated in order to visit public venues such as cinemas or restaurants. France has changed its vaccine passport regime to require a third dose from certain groups, a step already taken by Israel for whom two doses now counts as ‘unvaccinated’.
It is very possible that this forced vaccination of younger age groups will yield more injuries and deaths than they would have suffered at the hands of covid. The logic here is not medical but political.
The vaccine passport becomes the mandate for citizenship: it is a safe citizen card, a sign that someone is safe to interact with others. In Ontario, public health officials recommended excluding unvaccinated family members from Thanskgiving gatherings, or requiring them to have tests and wear masks.
The belief is that, without measures such as vaccine passports, society cannot function, that it is only because of these controls that cafes can stay open and schools can receive their students. In Lithuania (which requires a vaccine passport for people to go to any public facility aside from small grocery stores and pharmacies) the vaccine pass is called the ‘opportunity pass’. In other countries, it is the ‘green pass’. This is the pass that gives freedom, that gives opportunity, that allows life to go ahead.
Under coronavirus, the state becomes an industry producing bureaucratic controls, which are given the status of a prophylaxis. These are its public service, the thing it does to protect public health and wellbeing. These restrictions mediate life and we relate to others only through them. We can approach other people only when wearing a mask, go to school only after being tested, go to a cafe only after swiping our QR code.
Vaccines, masks and tests function as bureaucratic insignia, a talisman of safety, without which we cannot participate in civic life; without which, it is believed, that life could not be possible.
When covid cases rise there must be a concomitant increase in bureaucratic controls. The French government claims that it would dearly love to remove the vaccine passport, but it cannot, because covid cases are too high and it is simply not possible. No doubt when covid cases rise further over the winter then it will introduce further controls. There is a ceaseless choreography of rules, which are imposed, amended, lifted then reimposed.
Of course, all this is a bureaucratic mythology. If vaccine passports were removed tomorrow, nothing would happen. The belief that they allow society to function is like the Aztec belief that their rituals were essential to allow the sun to come up every morning.
It is the political meaning of vaccination that explains the extreme stigmatisation of the unvaccinated, who are described in Italy as rats, subhuman, criminals, who should be ‘purged’. Lithuanian politicians said that they ‘at war’ and must ‘fight the virus that is the anti-vaxxers‘. The true danger posed by the unvaccinated is not a medical one but a danger of their being outside the system, of having resisted the imperative of bureaucratic compliance. States become obsessed with getting to that last 10% or 20% of people who do not want to be vaccinated. These 10% niggle. They seem to be the problem at the root of everything; they are the cause of the persistence of the pandemic, the cause of rising cases.
There is a separate legal status for the unvaccinated, who are excluded from all or part of public life. If admitted, they are subject to different legal rules or separation from the vaccinated. This segregation will be evident in the Hamburg Christmas market, where a fence will divide the unvaccinated from the vaccinated. In one area, vaccinated citizens can eat, drink mulled wine and mingle without masks; in another area, unvaccinated citizens can shop but must wear a mask and socially distance, and are not allowed to consume food or drink.
It is telling that natural immunity is often not recognised by vaccine mandates. What is at stake is not the medical protection itself, but the meaning of vaccination as a bureaucratic procedure undergone. The immunity developed naturally may be more potent in medical terms, but it is worthless as political value, and so it is either not recognised at all by vaccine passports or grudgingly admitted for a limited period and then eclipsed.
Where the QR code state is heading is probably not conscious, but events point towards the abolition of civil society and spontaneity, and people’s participation and relation only through bureaucratic mechanisms, which will be continually changing in standards and requirements. One day the standard is two doses, then three; tomorrow it may be something else. What is certain is that the requirements will not stay still; there will be a continual disruption of life and the imposition of new requirements for civic participation.
It may seem that those with vaccine passports have retained their freedoms, since they are able to sit in cafes. In fact, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes, it is the registered bearers of the green pass who are less free, since they are the swiped and monitored; they have joined the QR code civic realm on the terms of the state.
With the vaccine passport, cafes in France are not the same. There is a bad feel about them; the QR code signs on the tables give them the stench of collaboration.
By contrast, the weekly demonstrations against the vaccine passport have become informal societies, with people having picnics and drinking in the street, playing music and dancing. Only here, in clandestine sociality, is there an element of genuine freedom – and a memory of what social life should look like, and what should be defended in the battle ahead.