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A French activist in Nice, France, displays a Canadian flag before the start of the 'Convoi de la liberte' (Freedom Convoy), a vehicular protest converging on Paris to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions, on Feb. 9, 2022.ERIC GAILLARD/Reuters

Inspired by the truckers in Ottawa and fuelled by social media, anti-vaccine protesters plan to swoop down on Paris and other European capitals before making their way to Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, for a mass demonstration on Feb. 14.

The “European Freedom Convoy,” as it is known on Twitter and other social media, reportedly has protests planned for all 27 national capitals in the EU, though details were scant Wednesday and it wasn’t clear whether the potentially massive Brussels event had received a police permit.

But any European protests would be nothing new.

On Jan. 23, about a week before the “Freedom Convoy” rolled into Ottawa, paralyzing the downtown, about 50,000 protesters took to the streets in Brussels to register their weariness with COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. Chanting “Liberty!” the marchers were dispersed by the police with water cannons.

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The Brussels march came after large protests against vaccine passports and other pandemic-fighting measures the day before in Paris, London, Athens, Helsinki and Stockholm.

The Ottawa protests and truck blockade appear to have reinvigorated the European protests, which are being urged by right-wing populist parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

In Germany’s most recent general election, in September, the party used the slogan “Germany. But Normal” to oppose the pandemic lockdowns that it argues is an assault on personal liberties. The AfD won 10 per cent of the vote, making it parliament’s fifth-biggest party.

On Feb. 6, AfD parliamentarian Christine Anderson used a tweet, which depicted her in front of a Canadian flag, to endorse the Ottawa protests. “Big shout-outs from EU-Parliament to the brave and courageous Canadian #FreedomTruckers!” she said. “I support your fight for freedom – and that of all Canadians – with all my heart!”

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Social-media networks appear to have motivated many thousands of Europeans to support or take part in the protests designed to culminate in Brussels.

The Facebook group “Le convoi de la liberté” had reached 315,000 members by Wednesday afternoon. The site was full of videos showing cars, vans and motorcycles – big transport trucks were rare – heading from Nice, Bayonne, Strasbourg and other cities to Paris, where a protest was planned for Friday and Saturday.

Many of the group’s posts said their protest was “Canadian inspired,” and the site calls on its followers to “lay siege to the capital,” referring to Paris.

One European Freedom Convoy channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favoured by far-right groups, had 50,000 members; another, 18,000. Telegram has many other smaller channels linked to other EU countries.

A minute-long video posted Wednesday on a Telegram channel showed Canadian trucks heading to Ottawa and was aimed at inspiring similar protests in Europe. The video said: “The Canadians showed us the way. … They tried to divide us, they brought us together. They tried to depress us, we are more alive than ever.”

The initiative for the Gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests, protests across France in 2018 and 2019 also began on social networks. Initially triggered by rising fuel prices, the protests expanded in size and scope, putting enormous pressure on the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

The protesters clogged Paris and other cities, demanded wage increases, a new tax on wealth and lower fuel taxes, since many of them depended on cars to get to work (Mr. Macron cancelled a fuel tax increase).

The European protests may not be as divisive or raucous as the Ottawa ones. Organizers of the French convoy have asked participants to respect the law and avoid violence.

The protests come as many European countries are expanding their vaccine mandates. Italy now requires all adults over 50 to be vaccinated. A new French law requires anyone 16 or older to show proof of vaccination or recent recovery from COVID-19 to enter restaurants or bars or use public transportation.

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