By Pascal Rossignol
VIMY, France – France mobilised thousands of police in and around Paris and set up checkpoints at toll stations on Friday to keep out convoys of motorists converging on the capital for a protest against government COVID-19 curbs.
Inspired by horn-blaring “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations in Canada, the motorists – from numerous cities across France – were expected to gather outside Paris later on Friday and seek to defy a police order not to enter the city.
“We’ve been going around in circles for three years,” said pensioner Jean-Marie Azais, part of a “Convoie de Liberte” headed to the capital from the southwest, in reference to France’s anti-COVID strategy.
“We saw the Canadians and said to ourselves, ‘It’s awesome, what they’re doing.’ In eight days, boom, something was sparked.”
As convoys exchanged information via social media on how best to slip into the city, avoiding a police presence that included heavy-lifting equipment to dismantle any makeshift roadblocks, Prime Minister Jean Castex warned demonstrators not to try to snarl up Paris traffic.
“Protesting is a constitutional right. Gridlocking others is not,” he told France 2 TV.
The Canadian demonstrations, which have paralysed parts of the capital Ottawa and blocked key U.S.-Canada crossing points, have united truckers angered by a vaccine mandate for trans-border traffic.
But in France it is everyday citizens angry at COVID restrictions who are taking to their vehicles, and the protests also show signs of uniting disparate opponents of President Emmanuel Macron, two months before an election in which he is expected to stand again.
A crusade by Macron against anti-vaxxers had been broadly supported, with 80% in France having been inoculated, but public irritation over COVID restrictions including a widely enforced vaccine pass that has already triggered waves of demonstrations is growing.
In Toulouse, one woman cheering on motorists said the protesters should defy the police order to stay outside Paris city limits.
“The authorities cannot block everyone,” said one woman cheering on motorists in Toulouse. “The convoys must force it, they must still try to enter.”
The motorists’ protests also appear to be attracting some far-right politicians and remnants of the anti-government “Yellow Vest” movement.
Some among a crowd that waved off a convoy of vans, motorhomes and cars in Vimy, northern France, wore the high-visibility vests that characterised those pre-pandemic protests of 2018 and 2019.
The “Yellow Vest” revolt shook Macron’s presidency over several months. What began as a protest against diesel taxes morphed into a broader rebellion against Macron and revealed a deep-seated anger outside big cities at the high cost of living and a disconnected urban elite.
With spiralling energy prices and a strong economic rebound driving inflation higher, households are again feeling a squeeze on budgets and public frustration is simmering.
“The question everyone is asking is whether the freedom convoy going to be a renaissance of the ‘Yellow Vests’,” one investigative police source said.