French convoys protesting virus rules move toward Paris

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From all across France, protesters angry over pandemic restrictions drove toward Paris Friday in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars and trucks in an effort to defy a police ban and blockade the French capital.

Waving French flags and shouting “freedom,” the protesters organized online, galvanized in part by truckers who have blockaded Canada’s capital and blocked border crossings. The French action has no single leader or goal, and comes as months of protests against French government vaccination rules have been waning.

Armored police vehicles, riot police vans and more than 7,000 police officers were deployed at tollbooths around Paris, the glamorous Champs-Elysee avenue and other key sites to try to prevent a blockade. Police stopped and checked select vehicles and threatened heavy fines and other punishments for those who defy the protest ban, which authorities said was necessary to prevent “risk to public order.”

Railing against the vaccination pass that France requires to enter restaurants and many other venues, protesters weaved toward Paris from north, south, east and west, waving and honking at onlookers from their car windows. Some convoys sought to avoid police detection by traveling local roads instead of the major highways leading into the capital.

By Friday night, it was unclear how many had managed to enter the city. Those who did plan to join protests in Paris on Saturday.

A French far right leader, Florian Philippot, sought to use the global attention to the Canadian trucker protest to reinvigorate his own small movement, which has been holding weekly rallies against vaccination rules and centrist President Emmanuel Macron for months.

“You put armored vehicles in front of the people … Free France isn’t armored vehicles, it’s (freedom) convoys,” he told a rally in southern Paris on Friday, where his followers held a “freedom party” and gathered bananas, chips and beer to provide to convoy drivers who haven’t yet arrived.

Some of the French protesters are threatening to continue their journey to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, and to meet up there with drivers from other countries on Monday.

Belgian authorities also banned the threatened blockade, and a similar convoy planned for Friday in Vienna was canceled after authorities banned it.

In France, dozens of cars left from a parking lot in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Friday, as scores of sympathizers brought them food and water and extra fuel, and cheered them on. A similar-sized group left from Lille, where one protester brandished a Canadian flag alongside the French tricolor. A smaller group gathered in the Loire Valley city of Orleans, among other cities.

Patrick Proisy, mayor of nearby Faches-Thumesnil, from the far-left Defiant France party, told The Associated Press: “I have come here in moral solidarity to show them that there are also elected officials who support them.”

Members of the convoy were wary of journalists or hesitant to speak on the record, out of fear of arrest. They embody a mix of causes.

Some sported yellow vests, a symbol of a French protest movement against perceived economic injustice which largely fizzled in 2019 after the government responded to some of the participants’ concerns.

One Lille protester who gave his name only as Cedric said he wasn’t that concerned anymore about virus rules, but was joining the convoy for political reasons — notably a wish to see Macron unseated in the April presidential election.

Another, named Ludivine, said she’s “against the vaccine pass of course, and all QR codes, whatever they are,” referring to the digital codes on the virus passes that have become a fixture of daily life in France.

Some chanted anti-capitalist slogans, or demanded more government aid.

At the Paris protest, Pierre-Louis Garnier sported a hat in the red-white-and-blue of the French flag, and shared his frustrations over “health tyrants” and the European Union, and his belief in some conspiracy theories. France’s vaccine pass and restrictions in other countries are being used to “domesticate people,” said Garnier, a 64-year-old from the Oise region north of Paris.

The French protesters have shared images of truckers in Canada who have blockaded border crossings and paralyzed downtown Ottawa while demanding an end to their country’s COVID-19 restrictions, including a rule for all truckers entering Canada to be fully vaccinated.

France has a very high vaccination rate, and the government is gradually easing mask requirements and other virus restrictions. However, after French hospitals and older adults were hit hard by repeated infection surges, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday that it was too early for people to let down their guard.

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