PARIS—In order to slip past the police and military officers who had been deployed around the perimeter of Paris to intercept the French version of the self-declared ‘Freedom Convoy’ last Friday, Michele Pantalacci and her friend hatched a plan.
After studying the map the night before, the pair decided to park just outside the city limits, and ride the train to the 14th arrondissement, where a small group of supporters had gathered to welcome members of the convoy, which was modelled after the trucker protest in Canada.
Over the weekend, Pantalacci, 66, and thousands like her defied a police ban and drove hundreds of kilometres from cities like Marseille, Strasbourg and Lille, to the French capital, where they aired their grievances against everything from vaccine mandates to the cost of living and President Emmanuel Macron himself.
For weeks, the protest in Ottawa, which had paralyzed the capital, spurred the declaration of a state of emergency and was dubbed an “illegal occupation” by Ontario’s premier, has emerged as a rallying cry for anti-vaxxers, anti-establishment, right-wing and extremist groups around the world.
In Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Belgium and France, like-minded groups have staged copycat protests, waving the Canadian flag alongside their own, heaping praise on the Canadian truckers whose protest began in opposition to vaccine mandates and evolved to encompass a panoply of anti-government demands. Members of the self-declared ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada are described as heroes and guardians of freedom by sympathisers abroad.
“It’s magic,” said Pantalacci, 66, of the images she’s seen of the Canadian blockade.
“The atmosphere, the humanity, the co-operation. I have a lot of admiration for Canada. Unfortunately, we haven’t reached that point yet in France yet.”
Unlike the movement in Canada which began as a protest against vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers, Pantalacci, along with the majority of French participants, is not a trucker. In France, truckers can travel freely between countries and are not subject to mandatory vaccination rules.
Along with being an anti-vaxxer, Pantalacci believes that COVID-19 is nothing more than a common flu, says that health restrictions like the vaccine passport are trampling on individual rights and freedoms, and follows conspiracy theorists. She said her main source of information on the disease comes from the controversial figure Didier Raoult, a Marseille doctor who rose to fame for using the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. The World Health Organisation does not recommend hydroxychloroquine for the prevention or treatment of the virus.
Pantalacci supports Donald Trump and the far right parties in France, believes that her own immune system will protect her from the virus and is against masking.
“In France, [the convoy includes] a lot of anti-vaxxers, but also mothers of young children who are against the vaccine for kids, “ said sociologist Jean-François Amadieu, who specialises in social movements at the University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. “There are people who don’t believe the science, who are conspiracy theorists, and militants from the far-right, and a few from the far-left.”
But another key component that is unique to French protesters in the self-styled ‘Freedom Convoy’ is the Yellow Vests, the grassroots anti-government movement which sprang up in 2018 among populist, working class groups in France to protest rising fuel prices, taxes and the cost of living.
Amadieu said the Yellow Vests’ momentum had slowed over the past few years, but the headline-grabbing ‘Freedom Convoy’ presented a new opportunity for tapping into resentment towards the government and vaccine mandates within the group.
“The Saturday protests and marches were attracting fewer and fewer people,” he said. “And when some saw that the Canadian movement became highly publicised around the world, they seized on the opportunity to re-launch their movement through this original and effective form of protest.”
Last month, President Emmanuel Macron’s off-the-cuff remark vowing to “emmerder” or “piss off” the unvaccinated with the introduction of a vaccine passport, sparked outrage among anti-vaxxers and his political rivals, who called his language unpresidential, inflammatory and disrespectful. Prior to the implementation of a vaccine passport, the unvaccinated could access restaurants, bars and museums with proof of a negative test or proof of recovery. The remark was made three months before the presidential election in April, in what some pundits view as a semi-calculated strategy to cement support among the majority of the population (80 percent) who are vaccinated.
After observing the Canadian blockade, which has paralysed Ottawa and US-Canada border crossings for weeks, the French government announced early that the convoy would be banned from entering Paris, and that protesters who attempt to stage a blockade faced a 4,500 euros ($6,500 CAD) fine and two years in prison.
Officials mounted an aggressive preemptive campaign, dispatching 7,200 police and military officers to intercept cars and issue fines throughout the weekend. Armoured carriers capable of towing vehicles were also deployed. On Saturday, about 100 cars succeeded in temporarily infiltrating the Champs-Elysées, before police cleared protesters with tear gas, in scenes reminiscent of the violent Yellow Vests protests. By Sunday morning, police said they had made 97 arrests and issued 513 fines.
While the French protest failed to make a major impact, it highlighted the country’s fears of a renewal of the Yellow Vest crisis in 2018, which at its height featured calls for insurrection. One of the protests’ early leaders, Eric Drouet, a truck driver, called on his followers to storm the Elysée presidential palace on social media and on national television. He was placed under investigation.
In Canada, protesters have been egged on by Donald Trump and conservative U.S. politicians such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul who have encouraged the blockade and called the truckers “heroes.” In France, leaders of the far right such as Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour voiced their support for the French convoy, in order to pander to their anti-Macron, anti-vaccine mandate voters ahead of the election. At the other end of the spectrum, the leader of the far left and a supporter of the Yellow Vests, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also been vocal about his opposition to the vaccine passport and expressed his alliance with the French convoy as well.
Protests inspired by the ‘Freedom Convoy’ have also spread to New Zealand, Australia, Belgium and the U.S., where demonstrators share similar grievances against vaccine mandates and restrictions in their countries, deplore what they say are violations of freedoms and civil liberties and harbour general anti-government sentiment.
But Amadieu points out that in France, the protesters represent a minority, with nearly 80 percent of the population fully vaccinated. The same could be said for Canada, which posts similar vaccination coverage.
Along with the mobilisation of far right, anti-Macron groups throughout the hastily organised ‘Freedom Convoy’ movement in France, sparked by its French counterpart, the rhetoric among their political leaders in France has also hardened as they prepare for elections in April. Last week, Zemmour floated the idea of building a wall against migrants, and in her political rally over the weekend, Republican leader and presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse made reference to “The Great Replacement,” a French conspiracy theory which purports that French white nationals are being replaced by immigrant, notably Muslim, populations with the complicity of French elites.