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People in France are blocking traffic in big cities to protest COVID-19 mandates

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests that began in Canada appear to be spreading to Europe. Truckers and other motorists who are against vaccine mandates, masks and government interference in their lives have formed a convoy that will converge on Paris today and Brussels on Monday. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is following all this and joins us from Paris. Eleanor, thanks for being with us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Great to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And what is the latest?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the latest is different convoys from around France, known as le convoi de la liberte, are trying to get into Paris to converge on the capital. The word is they want to block the Champs Elysees. That's Paris's iconic boulevard. It's hard to know how many vehicles, but police are out in force. There are more than 7,000 officers. There are roadblocks, water cannons and anti-riot vehicles. They look like big, blue tanks. I saw some of them on the streets last night already.

And according to French TV, which I'm watching live, a couple of hundred vehicles have been intercepted on the Ring Road, but others have gotten through. There's a camping trailer going through with a big sign on the back that says liberte for our children. And these convoys are communicating by walkie-talkie apps and Facebook groups. And they're being told to remove all their outward signs so they can get into the city. And after blocking Paris today, they want to move on to Brussels on Monday, where they've also been banned, I add.

SIMON: Can you tell how much support they have?

BEARDSLEY: I don't think they have a lot of support, but they've got a lot of attention. You know, France's anti-vaccine movement has been whittled down by some pretty tough restrictions. You know, little by little, the government of Emmanuel Macron made it harder to do anything in public without a vaccine, and that's actually made people get vaccinated. But there are some holdouts, and they're pretty hardcore. Last night, there was a demonstration in Paris, a sort of welcoming committee for convoi de la liberte, which was on its way. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: So they're chanting, you know, everybody with the convoy. They told me it was great what the Canadians have done, and you saw a lot of Canadian flags. No one was vaccinated that I talked to. There were no masks in the crowd, and they said the government is discriminating against them, has lied to them. They're tired of living with this heavy government control. It was a very conspiracy-minded crowd. Most of the people were older than 50, I would say. They thought the pandemic was planned. They said hospitals were never full. All that was lies. And here's Maureen Blake (ph), 55 years old. She said she was an actress. Here's what she told me.

MAUREEN BLAKE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So she basically said, we're in a war. Mr. Marcon and the elites are fighting a war against the people. We are against forced vaccines and this sanitary pass. She said France is no longer a country of the enlightenment and human rights. She told me, quote, "France is becoming a totalitarian regime."

SIMON: Eleanor, France has a very high vaccination rate, doesn't it?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely, Scott. Nearly 80% of people are vaccinated. Currently, you have to be fully vaccinated to go into any public place like a restaurant, bar, cinema. And things are going well. And actually, yesterday, the government said that it's going to drop mask mandates pretty soon for all of these places. But you'll still have to show a vaccine pass to get in.

SIMON: Any affiliation, Eleanor, between these protesters and the yellow vest movement that we saw a couple of years ago?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely, Scott. It's in the same vein. Now, remember; the yellow vests were sort of the working-class poor from rural areas and small towns, the forgotten France, forgotten by the elites in the cities. Many people in this crowd last night and in the convoys are claimed to be yellow vest supporters, and the one thing they have in common is a deep anger and dislike of President Macron. And this is coming just two months before the presidential election. So this liberte convoy movement is becoming very political.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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