Thousands of people have protested in Paris and other French cities against a mandatory coronavirus health pass for entry to a wide array of public venues, introduced by the government as it battles the fourth wave of infections.
Some 3,000 security forces deployed around the French capital on Saturday for a third weekend of protests against the pass that will be needed to enter restaurants and other places. Police took up posts along Paris’s Champs-Elysees to guard against an invasion of the famed avenue by violent demonstrators.
Most demonstrations were peaceful but some in Paris clashed with riot police, who fired tear gas.
“We’re creating a segregated society and I think it is unbelievable to be doing this in the country of human rights,” Anne, a teacher who was demonstrating in Paris, told Reuters news agency. She declined to give her last name.
“So I took to the streets; I have never protested before in my life. I think our freedom is in danger.”
With virus infections spiking and hospitalisations rising, French legislators have passed a bill requiring the pass in most places as of August 9.
Polls show a majority of French support the pass, but some French are adamantly opposed.
The pass requires vaccinations or a quick negative test or proof of a recent recovery from COVID-19 and mandates vaccinations for all healthcare workers by mid-September.
For anti-pass demonstrators, “liberty” was the slogan of the day.
Hager Ameur, a 37-year-old nurse, said she resigned from her job, accusing the government of using a form of “blackmail”.
“I think that we mustn’t be told what to do,” she told The Associated Press, adding that medical workers during the first wave of COVID-19 were quite mistreated. “And now, suddenly we are told that if we don’t get vaccinated it is our fault that people are contaminated. I think it is sickening.”
Tensions flared in front of the famed Moulin Rouge nightclub in northern Paris during what appeared to be the largest demonstration. Lines of police faced down protesters in up-close confrontations during the march. Police used their fists on several occasions.
As marchers headed eastward, police fired tear gas into the crowds, plumes of smoke filling the sky. A male protester was seen in the chaos with a bleeding head.
Ulrich Bruckner, professor of European studies at Stanford University in Berlin, said there are reasons to “be concerned [over COVID restrictions], but there are different ways of expressing this”.
“On the one hand, it is of utmost importance that every citizen can make use of his and her freedom rights, which includes the freedom of expression and the freedom to demonstrate,” Bruckner told Al Jazeera.
“On the other hand the state needs to protect itself and its system by restricting those freedoms if they are used against the system,” he said.
“And we see a lot of orchestrated forms of trying to undermine the state or to provoke the police, which is why today the demonstration in Berlin has been cancelled because it was clear it was not freedom of expression but to provoke the police,” he added.
In terms of the motives of the protests, Bruckner said the French are reading the implementation of new rules as a violation of equality.
“[In] France in particular, people read [these rules] as a violation of égalité … and no one is a second class citizen just because she or he decides against vaccination,” he added.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan said the people in France’s streets “are a small but rather vocal contingent of the population”.
“Some are against the risks of blood clots from the vaccines. Others don’t mind the vaccines but don’t like being told what to do, don’t like being forced to have one,” Brennan said.
“[But] it seems that President Macron is winning this arm wrestle with the French public over this. Three weeks ago, just over 40 percent of the public had had both vaccines. The latest data that I saw from yesterday that’s now up to 52 percent, so a big 12 percent leap in the people, although reluctantly, deciding to go for the jab,” he added.
Police estimated some 13,500 people demonstrated on the streets of Paris, a police spokesperson told Reuters news agency.
About 3,000 police officers were deployed in the capital, with anti-riot officers striving to keep demonstrators on authorised routes.
Authorities sought to avoid a repeat of events last week when scuffles between police and demonstrators broke out on the Champs-Elysees.
Protesters were also out in other cities like Marseille, Lyon, Montpelier, Nantes and Toulouse, shouting “Freedom!” and “No to the health pass!”
More than 111,800 people have died of the coronavirus in France since the start of the pandemic.