PARIS — Emmanuel Macron the risk-taker is back. Never having won an election of any kind, he embarked on a wild political gamble in 2016 and a year later, at 39, became the French president. Now, with nine months until the next election, this leader who has had no qualms about concentrating power has decided to try to coerce a people steeped in the values of liberty into getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Responding to a surge in cases of the highly infectious Delta variant, Mr. Macron, in an address to the nation Monday, stopped just short of imposing universal mandatory vaccinations, but he made clear that the lives of unvaccinated French people would quickly become miserable. He wielded a big stick, personalizing power in a way that has in the past led to criticism of him as a Jupiter-like figure.
If there is always a tension in France between its Jacobin, state-directed instincts and its Enlightenment embodiment of the freedom of the individual, this was a case of the president laying down the law and telling citizens to get in line or else.
“If you want to be free and responsible, you vaccinate — your choice and your consequences,” said Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist. “That was the president’s message. The risk, however, is of a dual, or two-speed, society.”
That risk was put most bluntly by Michèle Rivasi, a Green member of the European Parliament with a history of vaccination skepticism, who declared, “This is apartheid in the land of human rights.”
The more than 2.2 million people who signed up to get vaccinated in the 48 hours since Mr. Macron spoke appeared not to agree with Ms. Rivasi. Their haste suggested that all the French needed to get the vaccine was a powerful prod of a kind not seen up to now.
Certainly, such presidential conviction was nowhere to be seen back in April when Mr. Macron declared that a health pass “will never be a right of entry that differentiates between French people.” His health minister, Olivier Véran, noted at the same time that France has “a passion for equality” and that it was “almost inconceivable that when places reopen, they will not reopen to everyone.”
The Delta variant buried such commitments and predictions.
In France, as of Aug. 1, anyone without a “health pass” showing they have been vaccinated or recently tested negative will not be admitted to restaurants, cafes or movie theaters, and they will not be able to travel long distances by train, Mr. Macron said.
Many tests will cease being free in the fall “to encourage vaccination” before then. As for health workers, if they are not vaccinated by Sept. 15, they face suspension of pay, even dismissal.
Among European Union states, only Greece and Italy have made vaccination mandatory for health workers.
Opposition politicians, especially on the far-right and left, sharply criticized Mr. Macron’s dirigiste turn. “An indecent brutality,” Marine Le Pen, the rightist leader, said in a post on Twitter, responding to the admonition to health workers. For Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who leads an extreme left party, this was the act of a “presidential monarchy.”
The spectacle of the far right and the far left standing up for French “liberties,” while centrist liberals embraced top-down discipline was unusual. On balance, Mr. Macron’s gamble seemed to be working.
A free choice for the collective good is something to which the French are responsive. It feels like liberty and fraternity.
An outright imposition of mandatory vaccination would have been far more provocative. Mr. Macron has not, however, ruled out that ultimate step as the price of France attaining post-Covid status.
“I sense a feeling of relief that there’s finally somebody at the helm,” said Nicole Bacharan, a social scientist. “I certainly felt that.”
Vaccination has been a stop-go affair in France with polls suggesting last year that more than half of French people opposed vaccination. A segment of the population inclined to plot theories and skeptical of anything “elites” impose has resisted the idea that inoculation is the best response to the pandemic. About 36 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated, and a little over half has had at least one dose.
For Mr. Macron, the political calculus for his gamble probably seemed powerful. In many ways his address resembled a declaration of his candidacy for the 2022 election. A fourth wave of the pandemic later this year after France has already gone through three national lockdowns would almost certainly compromise his chances of re-election.
He has said a strong economic rebound is underway. It would not survive the renewed shuttering of stores and businesses and another curfew.
The president’s decision placed France ahead of most European states in making vaccination near mandatory. Britain, with many more people already vaccinated, is moving in the opposite direction. Despite a similar surge in Delta variant cases, it is on course for “Freedom Day” on Monday, when the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson says most remaining Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted.
In the United States, it is unlikely that any attempt at the federal level to impose the restrictions now envisaged by Mr. Macron would garner congressional approval. In France, Mr. Macron has a majority in the National Assembly, which should ensure that his proposals are voted into law.
Mr. Macron is touring the country in an attempt to “feel the pulse” of the nation, as he puts it. He will go next to the Hautes-Pyrénées region in the southwest, where he will get a first on-the-ground sense of whether driving the French to vaccinate themselves is a winning step, or sets the country on course for what is known here as a “fracture sanitaire,” or health fracture, which could turn into a nasty break once people start being turned away from restaurants.
Putting a health pass between the French and a meal is never without significant risks.