TREMBLAY-EN-FRANCE, France, July 22 (Reuters) – Working from his one-room apartment near Paris airport, Jérôme Rodrigues is trying to revitalize a protest movement of yellow vests that contested two years ago the regime of President Emmanuel Macron then collapsed outside.
Today, public anger over government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, which some people see as an assault on their freedom, has given Rodrigues and his movement new impetus.
Last weekend, police estimated 100,000 people joined protests against the measures, some under the banner of yellow vests. Another round of protests is planned for this weekend.
An internal Home Office report, viewed by Reuters, described last week’s protests as “exceptional in scale”, warned further large-scale protests were likely and said some officials associated with the measures The government’s COVID-19 had to be extremely vigilant about their safety.
Rodrigues, one of the movement’s best-known figures who lost an eye when hit by a projectile during a protest two years ago, said the latest protests have drawn people beyond the usual faithful of the yellow vests.
“I saw a lot of protesters for the first time,” said Rodrigues, who wears an ocular prosthesis, in his apartment. “Health workers, restaurant owners too, all kinds of people, children.”
“If there is one thing that can unite people today, it is anger.”
The Macron administration has submitted legislation to parliament that will prevent people from entering restaurants and bars without a ‘health pass’, showing they are vaccinated, have had a recent negative test, or are immune to COVID- 19. Opponents say the state is de facto forcing people to get bitten.
The yellow vests must compete to lead the anti-pass-health movement with other groups; among them are far-right politicians and civil liberties activists.
Macron’s allies say the protests should not mask what they say is a silent majority that supports the measures and believes they are necessary to bring life back to normal.
“Let’s keep things in perspective,” said Laetitia Avia, MP for Macron’s party. “There were around 100,000 people who demonstrated across the country, while there are millions of people who got vaccinated.”
Mohamed Boukifa, a 40-year-old baker, joined Rodrigues during a demonstration of yellow vests in Paris on Wednesday against the health pass.
He said he had followed the Yellow Vests on social media, but had so far never taken part in a protest.
“I am not here because I am against the vaccine,” he said. “I am here to defend our freedoms. We cannot be forced to be vaccinated.” He said he did not receive the vaccine because he was concerned about possible side effects.
The yellow vests movement started in 2018 as a protest against diesel taxes, then turned into a wave of anger over the high cost of living and income inequality.
The yellow vests blocked the roads and organized protest marches, often clashing with the police. Billions of euros in tax cuts helped quell the uprising, and after six months it began to run out of steam. Followers continued to protest, but in decreasing numbers.
The protests for health passes have been mostly peaceful. But police used tear gas to break up protests in Paris on July 14. Two vaccination centers were the target of arson. The French parliament speaker said some lawmakers who supported the health pass had received death threats.
None of these incidents were linked to the yellow vests.
The Interior Ministry report consulted by Reuters recommended additional security measures. “The longer the conflict lasts, the greater the risk that the most determined, and the most radical, will step in and take control,” the memo said.
Written by Caroline Pailliez and Christian Lowe; Editing by Alexandra Hudson
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