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The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends states try to convince people of the — undeniable — benefits of Covid-19 vaccines rather than use coercion. Emmanuel Macron thinks otherwise. This president, a constant critic of ‘illiberalism’, sees public liberties as nothing more than a dial he can adjust, an insignificant variable subordinate to the emergencies of the moment — be they medical, security or military. Forbidding millions of people from boarding a train, ordering a meal outdoors, or watching a film in a cinema without proving they are not infected by showing, as many as ten times a day, a document that business-owners will have to check, shifts us into another world.
That world already exists and it’s called China. Police officers there have augmented-reality glasses linked to thermal cameras on their helmets so they can pick out a person with a temperature in a crowd. Is this what we want?
We are, in any case, blithely endorsing the rampant invasion of digital technology and the tracking of our private and professional lives, our exchanges and our political views. Edward Snowden, asked how to stop our data being used against us once our mobile phones are hacked, said, ‘What can people do to protect themselves from nuclear weapons? There are certain industries, certain sectors, from which there is no protection, and that’s why we try to limit the proliferation of these technologies’ (1).
Macron is encouraging the exact opposite of this by accelerating the replacement of human interaction with a tangled web of government sites, robots, voicemail, QR codes and apps. Now, booking a ticket and shopping online require both a credit card and a mobile phone number, and sometimes even additional official documentation. There was a time, not so long ago, when you could take a train and remain anonymous, and travel across a city without being filmed, your sense of freedom enhanced by knowing you left behind no trace of having been there. Yet child abductions happened then, too, as did terrorist attacks, epidemics, even wars…
The precautionary principle will have no limit. Is it wise, for example, to sit in a restaurant with a person who may have visited the Middle East, had irrational thoughts, taken part in a banned demonstration or visited an anarchist bookshop? The risk of your meal being interrupted by a bomb, a Kalashnikov or a punch in the face may not be great, but nor is it zero. So will it soon be necessary for everyone to present a ‘civic pass’ guaranteeing they have police approval and no criminal record? They could then peacefully repair to a museum of public freedoms, the true ‘lost territories of the Republic’ (2)
(1) David Peg and Paul Lewis, ‘Edward Snowden calls for spyware trade ban amid Pegasus revelations’, The Guardian, London, 19 July 2021.
(2) A reference to the far right’s allegation that France has no-go areas, largely populated by immigrants, where law and order have broken down.