protesters toulon
© AFP / Christophe SIMON
Protesters in the southern French city of Toulon rally against the health pass, on August 7, 2021.
France on Monday began enforcing a Covid pass championed by President Emmanuel Macron in cafes, restaurants and trains, a tightening of rules the government hopes will boost vaccinations but which has prompted weeks of angry protests.

The pass, already needed for the last three weeks to go to a cinema, attend a concert or visit a museum, will be needed to partake in usually routine aspects of life in France such as sipping a coffee in a cafe or travelling on an inter-city train.

Almost a quarter of a million rallied nationwide on Saturday against the extension of the pass, the biggest in four consecutive weekends of protests, but Macron has shown little patience with the demonstrators' concerns over vaccination or alleged erosion of civil liberties.

Comment: These numbers are likely a very low estimate of those actually in attendance. Some estimates are as high as 2 million.

The health pass is generated in a QR code either by a full course of vaccinations, a recent negative virus test or a recovery from Covid-19. The government expects a one-week grace period for consumers and businesses to get used to the new rules.

As cafes opened for business on Monday morning, there were early signs of frustration in cafes who have had to survive long months of closure during pandemic lockdowns.

"They don't have the health pass an there is nothing I can do," said Mirela Mihalca, waiting on a table at cafe in central Paris, pointing to two customers who sat down but who she had refused to serve.

"Some understand it quickly, others not. It is going to be difficult, we are not the police!" she added.

At a cafe in the centre of the southwestern city of Bordeaux, manager David Fourton described the new rules as a "pain" that would require the hiring of an extra person to carry out the checks.

"And if we turn clients away what is there reaction going to be? It will slow things down for sure and risks being an utter mess at busy times."

Macron hopes the plan will further accelerate the vaccination drive in France where over 55 percent are now double-jabbed. Aides have noted that almost seven million new bookings were made for first jabs since the plans were outlined.

The president, who faces re-election next year, has in recent days repeatedly taken to the social media platform TikTok, popular among young people, to get his message across.

"Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated," Macron said in the latest video Friday.

"It's a question of being a good citizen... our freedom is worth nothing if we infect our friends, neighbours or grandparents. To be free is to be responsible."

About 237,000 people protested across France on Saturday, including 17,000 in Paris, the interior ministry said, exceeding the 204,000 recorded last weekend -- numbers that are extremely unusual for protests at the height of the summer break.

In remarks to the Paris Match weekly, Macron made no secret of his frustration with the protesters, who he described as "a few tens of thousands of citizens who have lost their senses to such an extent that they say they live in a dictatorship."

"I will not give into their radical violence," he added.

The Le Monde daily noted Macron's defiance, saying: "Just a few months before the presidential elections the president is not hesitating to be divisive", while appearing to keep the support of his core electorate.

The numbers in hospital with Covid-19 in France are still way off previous highs but the government admits the country is battling a fourth wave of the virus. Cases have been rising fastest in Corsica and the Mediterranean coast, which are seeing a summer influx of holidaymakers.

But the biggest concern is over France's overseas territories in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, notably Martinique and Guadeloupe, where new lockdowns have been ordered amid a slow vaccine uptake.

Recent polls though have shown that a clear majority of French back the pass, even including the extension to cafes and restaurants.

The pass has already been required since July 21 to visit cultural venues such as cinemas, theatres and museums. Its extension was approved by France's Constitutional Council on Thursday.

It will be needed both in the indoor and outdoor areas of restaurants but will not be required on metro systems and suburban transport.