On Sunday night, France’s ‘liberty convoy’ filled a supermarket carpark outside Lille, after leaving Paris. A video on the group’s Telegram account showed hundreds of assembled vehicles, a sea of lights and French flags, with shouts coming from all directions. The cars had arrived earlier in the evening with crowds of locals lining the road, chanting ‘Resistance, Liberté!’ and lighting the route with red flares.
Every step of the way – which started out last Wednesday in Nice and other far-flung cities – the convoy has been met with tables of food and cheers of support from the public.
When I saw off a convoy from Saint Gaudens, south west France, last Thursday morning, there were students and pensioners, hippies and right-wing patriots taking part – a motley alliance of people who had had enough of France’s increasing authoritarian Covid measures and were determined to do something about it.
In spite of politicians’ attempts to tar the protest as being made up of conspiratorial ‘anti-vaxxers’, the people I spoke to on the convoy didn’t talk about the vaccine. They were worried about France becoming a society of surveillance and control. They called the protests a ‘convoy of liberation’ to ‘reclaim our essential liberties’. They said they wanted their children and grandchildren to grow up in a free world rather than a ‘sanitary dictatorship’.
The protestors have been provoked by a series of increasingly strict Covid measures in France. An intransigent elite in this country has tightened the rules at the very moment the rest of the world is relaxing them. Since 24 January, French people have not been able to rely on a Covid test or natural immunity for their vaccine passport that gives them access to cafes, museums and sports facilities. On top of this, nearly 5 million French people will have their vaccine passes deactivated today because of their failure to have a booster four months after their second shot.
Before the protests reached the capital this weekend the convoy’s spokespeople – two mild-mannered ladies, one a teacher at a Catholic school and the other a nurse – invited politicians to meet them for ‘dialogue’ in Paris. Instead, the protesters were given a reception in the capital more suited to a hostile army. Over 7,000 police were mobilised to form a ring around the city, and armoured trucks lined up in the centre to face down the peaceful protestors. After the protests were banned from the city, the organisers arranged for a picnic to take place outside the city instead, but the police blocked groups of drivers and supporters with provisions from reaching the site. A small group of vehicles that attempted to block the roads in protest were dealt with violently, with the police smashing car windows and dragging out their drivers. In pitched battles yesterday protesters that made it into the city centre were reportedly beaten by groups of police, and diners at pavement cafes had to flee police teargas.
The convoy was supposed to continue to Brussels on Monday morning, but late on Sunday night the organisers decided to head to Strasbourg instead, where the European parliament is currently sitting. The French convoy organisers said they had changed the destination because of a lack of support from other countries and because the convoy would not be able to enter Brussels.
The Belgians were strictly policing the border on Sunday and demanding that people show their vaccine passports before they could enter the country.
The French convoy’s decision to head to Strasbourg has been unpopular among some of their members. ‘We didn’t do all this to have a giant picnic’, complained one driver on Telegram; others said ‘the Canadians didn’t wait for support, they showed others the way’. But the decision is also understandable: there are a fair number of retired people in camper vans among the convoy, and the organisers do not want to lead them into potential danger.
The French convoy has now in effect been dispersed. Some have already made it to Brussels and will take part in protests there. Meanwhile another section of the convoy has headed to Strasbourg.
The detachment between the French people and the elite in the country has been dramatically on display this week. The ‘convoi de la liberté’ may have been diverted, but this is not the end. A section of the public has had a taste of solidarity, and the hostility with which their protests have been met has only strengthened their resolve.
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