France update: The brilliant design of France’s latest pandemic mandates

On Monday night French president Emmanuel Macron announced the latest mandates for France around the the pandemic. It’s taken a few days to process, but for the first time in a long time I’m wildly impressed with France’s handling of Covid-19.

France has been on a rollercoaster since the pandemic first broke out in France March 2020. We were one of the earlier countries to adopt a strict lockdown, which involved permission slips, 1 hour and 1 km limits that got our numbers under control. When restrictions started to loosen up, there was a lack of clarity in messaging. The situation has been a rollercoaster of numbers ever since (ironically always the opposite of our neighbors in the UK; we have yet to both have low [case] numbers at the same time). There were moments that I felt like I even time travel back in time a year—not in a good way.

In the grand scheme of things France’s situation is relatively under control in terms of our freedoms. It helps that restaurant life has moved to terraces that have moved onto the streets of Paris. France was hovering around 2,000 cases a day for awhile, but the Delta+ variant jumped up to 4,000+ cases a day. (Check Santé Publique for daily numbers or search “Google Covid France” to see the graph.)

Knowing we had a big spike last year after summer holidays, France knew they needed to take action. This time things were different. Now the current plan and language is clear, direct, and actionable.

The designer in me had a warm heart realizing that this time around the government/leadership is finally taking into consideration actual human (FRENCH!) behavior, and not just intended behavior. The brilliance of the current decisions is France is using their reputation of being bureaucratic to their advantage. Nothing is dictated, but everything is implied. If you don’t get vaccinated, your life is a giant pain in the ass.

For a long time France had been treating the population like kids. “I told you to do this so you will listen and follow.” We all know that’s not how all children will respond/react when you ask them to do something, and adults are even more likely to rebel. You can say don’t gather in groups, but based on the parties that would keep me up on weekend night’s in my apartment building, the individual exceptionalism people took on was anxiety inducing.

Behavior change is hard, and there were no guardrails to enforce the requests of the government and little enforcement of the rules government had communicated. In being afraid to set a hard line, all the messaging was soft and messy. Numerous situations weren’t taken into consideration. It felt like leadership forgot not everyone lives like they do and has the same access to privilege. A lot became a matter of interpretation.

For nearly a year, language in top level communication was philosophical and often elitist, with nuance hidden between the lines, very open to interpretation and bending of rules. As a citizen it felt like wishful thinking, without a lot of hope. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. Every time we back pedalled and numbers spiked, it was never a surprise (and quite frankly highly predictable).

There were very few things we were working towards. Last December when we missed target goals, museums didn’t reopen, but nothing else happened. The was no incentive or hope to motivate the masses.

Even as we entered third lockdown, the population as a whole believed that stricter measures were necessary; the majority of people also admitted that they’d be breaking the rules. It wasn’t an either/or situation. The pandemic provided an interesting case study into the multiplicity of truths and the challenges in navigating a way forward. As a designer, I see this all as a design problem with the need for creative problem solving.

Monday’s announcement was a visible shift which felt like we had actual leadership to be proud of again. France got back in the game and learned how to play in a way only the French could do. The land of bureaucracy learned to use their bureaucracy to their advantage. The plan is wicked smart and tight. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Nothing is dictated. You are not required to be vaccinated (note: France is one of, if not the highest, anti-vax countries in Europe). However, if you are not vaccinated that’s when life gets complicated. Only health workers and those working in retirement homes are required to get the shot.
  2. Every individual is given a QR code as part of their “pass sanitaire” (health pass) upon getting vaccinated. The pass can be used to access stadiums and events. The new measures starting soon will involve needing to show your pass to eat inside restaurants, go to the cinema, hospitals, riding [distant] trains, etc. If you are not vaccinated you will need to show your PCR negative results, which are also QR codes sent to your pass.
  3. PCR tests have been free up until this point. (I believe they recently started charging tourists, however it’s much more affordable than the hundreds of Pounds in the UK). Starting this fall everyone will have to pay for PCR tests.

The result? The evening of the announcement there were one million people who booked appointments for vaccines (Doctolib and Vite Ma Dose are the go to places), and 1,7 million within 24 hours. That’s A LOT of people who had been hesitating about getting vaccinated. France found a culturally specific way to respond to the design challenge: bureaucracy.

These choices show France’s understanding of French behavior, and existing structures that created new urgency and relevance for the vaccine. This is not only about the vaccine, but about protecting the hospital systems, essential workers, and supporting the economy long term. Change is possible. France is showing how to play the game.

Good design is never mastered the first time we set out to dream up a solution. Design is an iterative process, with a learning cycle. While very frustrating at times, I’m incredibly relieved that France has learned from previous iterations, to develop an ecosystem that addresses the problem head on, while not adding massive work to other industries to respond and adapt to.

The plan is still not flawless, but it’s a start. As a dual citizen who lives in France but got vaccinated in the US, I’m currently not eligible for a French QR pass. I’m an “edge case” which is a rare case that wasn’t automatically considered. (Readers pointed out people who don’t have smart phones/access to technology, are illiterate, can’t get the vaccine due to health reasons, or afraid of the vaccine due to outing themselves as trans also could fit as other edge cases.)

The computer system was designed in a way that can’t be over-written—a good thing, but also a challenge. Ironically I’d be able to get the pass sanitaire if I had one shot in the US, and one in France, but because I got both shots in another country therein lies the problem. While expat Facebook groups show other Americans have succeeded in getting QR passes, my theory is the majority of those cases were people who got the J&J vaccine (only one shot, hence it works within the system, which allows one shot to be marked as foreign). Lot numbers are input too, so the vaccine center (or doctor) could get in trouble when the system realizes that lot was never administered there. The goal in getting my QR pass is also not to cause problems down the line.

One of the most shocking things to the head of the vaccine center at my local Mairie (mayor’s office) was that I did not receive a QR code (every state in the US is different; Virginia did not have one), nor a unique number on my CDC card. For me both of these comments show just how robust the French system is, despite the initial slow vaccine rollout.

It goes to show this whole plan doesn’t completely consider how it will work with tourists, and unique situations in each country. I’m fortunate that my CDC card will be accepted, but I am concerned about going to a “big” event and getting pulled to the side and not being able to pass through as a unique case where the worker doesn’t know what to do with me. I had one Canadian follower tell me they only receive emails after their shots, but no actual documentation. There are still many situations that have yet to be considered, from all countries.

Even in the past 24 hours there have been more updates in France that suggest that cases like mine are being considered in terms of creating vaccine equivalencies (note: I am a French citizen and not an expat/immigrant). I wouldn’t be surprised if there are systems for tourists to register down the line too.

If anything, the pandemic has taught us, the game is not over until it’s over. France was able to get numbers under control after the first lockdown, but spiralled back in time. The latest small steps feel like a big leap, and hopefully a lesson in what other countries can adapt.

The current system in France is direct, simple, and straight forward. The rules leave for less loose interpretation. (Oh, the number of people and industries who considered themselves “essential workers” during lockdowns was astounding—and laughable). Furthermore, communication is no longer based on assumptive behaviors. There are clear, actionable steps citizens can take, whichever path they take. Individuals still have their own agency, however, the government has a vision, and one that’s for the greater good.

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