February 11, 2022 - 2:30pm

Saint-Gaudens, France

Yesterday morning in the small town of Saint-Gaudens, south-west France, a pensioner thrust a cake and 20 euros through the window of a camper van starting on the two-day ‘liberty convoy’ to Paris. Locals had prepared a table packed with provisions to sustain those driving across the country to protest against the vaccine passport and other strict covid measures. Cars had ‘freedom’ or tricolours attached to their sides; a camper van bore a sign about love on the dashboard and flew a dove of peace out of the window.

Thanks to the example set by the Ottawa truckers, which one organiser described as “very inspiring”, the vehicles are coming from across the country. They are due to arrive outside Paris at 8pm tonight (Friday) while some will continue on to Brussels to meet drivers from other parts of Europe on 14 February.

The travellers are a spectrum of France: hippies and retired couples, motorbike men and racer boys, from all political camps, vaccinated and unvaccinated. They disagree on many things but share a passionate opposition to vaccine passports and other ‘liberticide’ Covid measures.

The context is the yawning gap between a caste-like political elite and the general public. While the British political elite has unraveled with ‘partygate’ and other scandals, the French presidency has maintained a tight formation, strengthening the vaccine passport at the very moment when other countries are abandoning it. The constitutional court obligingly rubber-stamped the latest vaccine passport even though it violated its own conditions set for the previous version. Weekly demonstrations in almost every sizeable French town and city have fallen on deaf ears, as was a petition against the vaccine passport that gathered more than a million signatures in a matter of days.

The convoy’s official spokespeople say the aim is to gather in a picnic ground outside Paris and ask political leaders to come and meet them for a dialogue. They say it is peaceful and not about a blockade. But this doesn’t mean that no one will enter Paris: Parisians are hosting reception committees for the arrivals, and on Telegram chats convoy members appear to be looking for beds for the night in the city.

The European political elite is lining up against the convoy. The French secretary of state for European Affairs said that the participants were “irresponsible”: “it’s not the convoy of liberty, but the convoy of shame and egotism”. He dismissed the event as “the umpteenth episode of antivaxxers” that include “conspiracy theorists who think that the vaccine is inserting chips into the arms of people”. The prefect of Paris police has prohibited all demonstrations between Friday and Monday, threatening the organisers of any demos with imprisonment and 7500 euros fines.

Meanwhile, Belgian authorities have banned all ‘demonstrations with motorised vehicles’, to block the Brussels stage of events. There are also accounts of drivers being turned back by police: a handful of posts on the convoy’s Telegram channel said that the police had blocked their passage, and they advised convoy drivers to remove posters from their cars and avoid the motorways.

Facebook gave the French Government a helping hand by deactivating the accounts of all admins of the ‘Convoi de la Liberte’ group, which had over 350,000 members and was the main point of public contact for the initiative. The admins lost access to the group and most new posts were blocked, stymieing people’s ability to post updates on the convoys’ journeys and significantly reducing the audience.

The convoy — with its motley and spontaneous solidarity — presents a different view of citizenship, with people offering up rooms in their homes to strangers, pushing money through car windows to contribute to petrol costs. “The vaccine passport doesn’t do anything useful, it is just about controlling people”, a young man told me the St. Gaudens carpark, as he prepared to set out on the drive. “Politicians are the ones who are doing the damage, they are breaking down the ties between people”.

Josie Appleton is the director of the Manifesto Club and author of Toxic Sociality – Reflections on a Pandemic and Officious – Rise of the Busybody State