French police have uncovered 182,000 fake health passes since the documents were introduced this summer in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin last week asked police to step up their investigations into the criminal networks or individuals behind the fake passes, as concerns grow about the highly contagious new omicron variant. On Monday, he said the fake documents were detected “as part of the 400 ongoing investigations.” The minister didn’t provide details on any arrests or individuals involved. He has previously said some cases had been traced to health professionals.
“Using, procuring or selling false health passes, in particular via social networks, is punishable by 5 years in prison and a 75,000 euro fine,” Darmanin said in a statement posted on Twitter. He has previously condemned the fake documents as “death passes.”
The introduction of France’s health pass prompted weeks-long nationwide protests this summer. Even though the rallies have shrunk in size, incidents of vandalism against vaccination centers and other sites continue to be reported.
The police crackdown on fake passes comes as France, and other nations, are tightening restrictions in the face of the highly transmissible omicron variant, which is spreading at lightning speed across the European continent.
The Netherlands was the first to enter a full-scale lockdown on Sunday, with all nonessential stores, bars and restaurants closed at least until Jan. 14. Scientists are pushing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take tougher measures to slow the exploding number of new infections, although so far he has said no rules would change.
Officials in Paris are reluctant to impose new curfews or lockdowns on people who have been vaccinated. But officials argue that the threat of omicron means authorities have to increase pressure on those refusing vaccination. France recorded 367,297 new cases in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data, shy of a previous weekly record of 422,681 set in November 2020.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Friday the government will propose a bill in parliament in January to change the official health pass into a “vaccine pass,” meaning only vaccinated people will be allowed to enter indoor public places such as bars, restaurants and cinemas.
About 72 percent of the country is fully vaccinated, according to Washington Post data.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right nationalist party, has said from the outset that the health pass was a “backward step for individual freedoms” and views the planned vaccine pass as akin to mandatory vaccination.
“French people are losing individual freedoms,” she said on cable TV channel BFM over the weekend.