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France and Italy send a message with new COVID vaccine mandates: It’s time to ‘piss off’ the unvaccinated

January 6, 2022, 11:56 AM UTC

If there is epicenter to Europe’s war on the unvaccinated, it just might be in Italy and France. For months, the countries have introduced tough new measure after tough new measure—at times, within hours of one another—to impel citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or face the consequences.

The two countries aren’t slowing down in 2022, introducing a host of new mandates and measures aimed directly at vaccine skeptics. The latest came in France on Thursday.

After days of furious brawling among French lawmakers, the country’s National Assembly finally voted before dawn on Thursday to ban unvaccinated people from restaurants, bars, cinemas, concerts, and many other public places, in a move that has ballooned into a divisive campaign issue for President Emmanuel Macron, who told a group of voters this week he wanted to “piss off” unvaccinated people.

Beginning Jan. 15, people over 18 need to prove they are fully vaccinated, rather than be given the choice of either being immunized or taking frequent COVID-19 tests, as has been the case since last July. The parliamentarians ended their days and nights of arguing and approved Macron’s plan at 5:30 a.m. That came a day after Macron said he intended to “piss off” unvaccinated people “to the end”—exerting maximum pressure on the 10% of adults in France who have refused COVID-19 vaccinations.

Macron’s blunt remark—a mild translation of the French verb emmerder—ignited an explosive reaction from his political rivals in April’s presidential elections, who declared him unpresidential and crude. Although Macron has yet to formally declare his candidacy for reelection, his pandemic management—and the crucial debate over vaccine mandates—has been seen as the central campaign issue.

“We have rights and responsibilities as citizens,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said in a lengthy interview on BFM Television after parliamentarians approved the mandatory vaccine pass. “To be anti-vax is not just a personal choice.”

Many politicians and voters appear to agree, after two exhausting years of the pandemic. Despite the politicians’ splenetic arguments all week, Macron’s plan passed the National Assembly by a vote of 214 to 93. That reflected recent polls, which show that about two-thirds of people in France support compelling people to be vaccinated in order to gain entry to public places. The French Senate is expected to ratify the new law early next week, before it comes into force that weekend.

Increasingly, two of Europe’s most powerful leaders—Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi—have pursued similar pandemic strategies. As Omicron cases have rocketed in both countries, Macron and Draghi are keen to make it increasingly difficult for people remain unvaccinated.

France’s COVID-19 infections have soared since school and businesses have reopened after New Year, breaking pandemic records day after day. On Wednesday health officials reported more than 320,000 positive infections in the previous 24 hours—far above the figure of 270,000 the day before.

With that sharp rise, people increasingly appear to back more forceful vaccine measures—something Castex stressed after Thursday’s vote on the new French law. Asked on television whether Macron was right to say he wanted to “piss off” unvaccinated people,” he said, “If we are all citizens, no one will be pissing off anyone else.”

50 and older

In a somewhat surprising move, the Italian government on Wednesday announced that all Italians 50 and older must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The tough new measure comes as Italy grapples with a spike in Omicron infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.

“We want to slow down the growth of the contagion curve and push Italians who still aren’t vaccinated to do so,” Draghi said in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “We are acting in particular on age groups that are most at risk of hospitalization, to reduce pressure on hospitals and save lives.”

In the past two days, the country of 60 million has seen more than 350,000 new cases and nearly 500 deaths. What’s worrying health care officials is the rate at which hospital beds are filling up. The levels are nothing like what the country experienced in the spring of 2020, but in the days after Christmas, Italy hit a critical milestone: One in five hospital beds are now occupied by COVID patients—in the tiny Alpine region of Valle d’Aosta on the French border, the hospital bed occupancy rate is nearly 50%—with the majority of those unvaccinated, or those with underlying medical conditions.

Italy had already instituted some of the toughest vaccine mandates in Europe. In August the Draghi government introduced the Green Pass, state-issued proof that the bearer is either fully vaccinated, recovered from a COVID infection, or carries a negative test result. A green pass is now required to engage in just about every facet of Italian public life. Without one, a person cannot enter a workplace, museum, movie theater, restaurant, or most shops. Under new rules imposed on Wednesday, only supermarkets and pharmacies are Green Pass–free zones.

Prior to Wednesday’s new vaccine mandate, polls in Italy showed that a majority of Italians support the Green Pass.  

Read more: No jab, no job: Europe’s workers face tough measures as politicians lay down the law