French MPs pass controversial Covid vaccine bill with large majority

French MPs have passed the government’s controversial vaccine pass bill after three days of an angry stop-start debate.

The legislation, which requires people to be fully vaccinated to enjoy social, sporting and cultural activities, was approved by a large majority in the assemblée nationale in the early hours of Thursday morning.

The bill was passed by 214 votes against 93 and 27 abstentions. It will now be presented to the upper house, the sénat, to be debated on Monday.

Ministers had hoped to introduce the controversial measure on 15 January, but the often heated parliamentary debate was suspended twice this week. The law was first held up when MPs voted to go home just before midnight on Monday, then again on Wednesday after a row erupted over language used by the president, Emmanuel Macron’s when he promised to make life difficult for unvaccinated people.

While more than 90% of French adults have been fully jabbed, one of the highest rates in the world, the remaining 10% – estimated at around 5 million people, including Brigitte Bardot, the actor turned animal activist, have refused to have the Covid vaccine.

Until now they have been able to use a passe sanitaire (health pass) that required either vaccination, recovery from Covid or a negative Covid test for everyone over the age of 12 to access restaurants, bars, museums, theatres and other public places. In October, the government put an end to free Covid tests for unvaccinated people, but the new legislation goes a step further in requiring people to be fully vaccinated to access such places.

Macron said the measure was intended to coerce vaccine-hesitant people to get inoculated by further restricting their everyday activities. The law also introduces hefty fines and prison sentences for anyone caught using or supplying fake vaccine passes and for establishments that fail properly to check visitors’ vaccine status. The pass will not be required for shops or medical facilities such as hospitals and clinics.

Vaccination is currently compulsory only for health workers, but the new law would extend this to those who work in venues where they are in contact with the public. Macron, who is expected to be re-elected in April, has ruled out making the vaccine obligatory for everyone.

About 66,000 people had their first vaccine on Wednesday after the president’s controversial comments, the highest number in 24 hours since the beginning of October.

The prime minister, Jean Castex, told the French news and weather channel BFMTV he hoped the vaccine pass could come into force on 15 January as originally planned and described the Covid situation in France as “extremely worrying”.

Castex defended Macron’s controversial use of the verb “emmerder” (widely translated as “piss off”) in his vow to put pressure on those French people who refused to be vaccinated, saying the former president, Georges Pompidou, had used the same word. Macron also angered critics by calling unvaccinated people irresponsible, adding: “Someone irresponsible is not a citizen.”

“Let’s not play with words, of course the non vaccinated are still [French] citizens,” Castex said. “What the president wanted to say is that when you are a citizen of our beautiful republic, you have rights, but also duties. It’s called civic-mindedness, it’s called a sense of responsibility.”

On Thursday, it was revealed Bardot was among those facing Macron’s ire: the 87-year-old actor said she had not been vaccinated as she was “allergic to all chemical substances”.

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