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French MPs snub government by refusing overnight vaccine pass debate

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By Euronews  with AFP
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Under new rules, negative tests would not be accepted at French bars and restaurants.
Under new rules, negative tests would not be accepted at French bars and restaurants.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bob Edme

French MPs refused to examine a bill transforming the country's COVID health pass into a vaccine pass overnight on Monday.

It was a surprise rebuke to the government who had hoped to push the legislation through as soon as possible.

If approved, the pass would restrict access to most public venues only to fully vaccinated people or those who have recently recovered from COVID-19.

Crucially, it would stop people from obtaining a pass by showing a recent, negative COVID test, as is possible currently.

Parliamentary groups' presidents met on Tuesday morning before the bill was put before MPs again.

'Slap in the face for the government'

The surprise suspension -- loudly welcomed by the opposition -- is likely to derail the timetable for the final adoption of the text by parliament, which was originally scheduled for the end of the week.

"It's a slap in the face for the government," MP Julien Aubert said, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left la France Insoumise party, welcomed the "correction" inflicted on Olivier Véran, France's health minister.

Véran had wanted lawmakers to debate overnight on Monday so that the bill could quickly proceed to the upper chamber.

The head of the ruling En Marche! (LREM) group, Christophe Castaner, blasted the "irresponsibility" of those who opposed the extension past midnight.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal had earlier said that they would do "everything we can" to ensure the bill is approved as expected.

The suspension also came as health minister Véran warned that that nearly 300,000 new cases of COVID-19 had been recorded in France in the last 24 hours.

Death threats

The proposed tightening of restrictions has generated fresh anger from anti-vaccine protestors in France, with dozens of MPs reporting death threats ahead of the debate on the new bill.

Last week, the property of another French MP in Oise was set on fire and vandalised by suspected anti-vaccine demonstrators. LREM's Barbara Bessot Ballot said at least 52 MPs had received "unacceptable" threats of violence or vandalism.

On Sunday, Agnès Firmin Le Bodo of the centre-right Agir party tweeted a graphic threat that had been emailed to her anonymously.

In the email, Firmin Le Bodo was threatened with decapitation by someone who said they had bought knives.

Another MP, Naïma Moutchou of the Horizons party, shared a similar threat which said she would be "shot in your home and have your head cut off”.

In response to the death threats, Véran denounced the "selfishness" of anti-vaccine protestors and pledged that those responsible for the threats would be punished.

On Monday, Véran also expressed his "unwavering support for elected officials" before the debate.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has added that police will strengthen protections for elected lawmakers.

"We will not yield," LREM lawmaker Yaël Braun-Pivet told parliament on Monday, adding that France's democracy "is at stake".

France's Prime Minister Jean Castex has also denounced the threats as "unacceptable violence".

"If we are talking about people who have public authority, people who have universal suffrage, then the use of violence is a threat to democracy," he told parliament on Tuesday.

A tense debate in the French parliament

Like many European countries, France has seen demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions in recent months despite improving attitudes.

France currently has one the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the European Union with more than 91% of citizens aged 12 and over fully vaccinated.

Since August, French citizens have had to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at many public venues.

But the new "vaccine pass" is being introduced to curb a wave of infections linked to the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The government says the new regulations will prevent France from having to introduce future curfews or lockdowns. A negative test will still be sufficient to access French health facilities and services.

Those found possessing a fake vaccine pass would face a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a €75,000 fine. Bars and restaurants could also be fined €1,000 for failing to check customers' vaccine status.

In a tense debate in parliament, several opposition MPs have expressed their opposition to the new rules, with left-wing lawmaker Jean-Luc Melenchon saying the proposed law would create a "totalitarian, authoritarian society".

Others have suggested that France should focus on other "weapons" to fight the virus -- such as FFP2 masks and COVID-19 tests -- or introduce measures only for those at risk from infection.

A protest was also held outside the French parliament building in Paris on Monday evening.

If passed, the proposed bill will then go to the French Senate before it can be adopted and enter into force by mid-January.