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Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against the compulsory vaccination for certain workers and the mandatory use of the health pass called by the French government, in Nantes, western France, on July 24, 2021.

SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP

Some 160,000 people, including far-right activists and members of France’s yellow vest movement, protested Saturday across the country against a bill requiring everyone to have a special virus pass to enter restaurants and mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for all health care workers.

Similar protests were held in neighbouring Italy.

Police fired water cannons and tear gas on rowdy protesters in Paris, although most gatherings were orderly.

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Legislators in France’s Senate were debating the virus bill Saturday after the lower house of parliament approved it on Friday, as virus infections are spiking and hospitalizations are rising. The French government wants to speed up vaccinations to protect vulnerable people and hospitals, and avoid any new lockdown.

Most French adults are fully vaccinated and multiple polls indicate a majority of French people support the new measures. But not everyone.

Protesters chanting “Liberty! Liberty!” gathered at Bastille plaza and marched through eastern Paris in one of several demonstrations Saturday around France. Thousands also joined a gathering across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower organized by a former top official in Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party.

While most protesters were calm, tensions erupted on the margins of the Bastille march. Riot police sprayed tear gas on marchers after someone threw a chair at an officer. Other projectiles were also thrown. Later some protesters moved to the Arc de Triomphe and police used water cannon to disperse them.

Marchers included far-right politicians and activists as well as others angry at President Emmanuel Macron. They were upset over a French “health pass” that is now required to enter museums, movie theaters and tourist sites. The bill under debate would expand the pass requirement to all restaurants and bars in France and some other venues.

To get the pass, people need to be fully vaccinated, have a recent negative test or have proof they recently recovered from the virus.

French lawmakers are divided over how far to go in imposing health passes or mandatory vaccinations but infections are rising quickly. More than 111,000 people with the virus have died in France, and the country is now seeing about 20,000 new infections a day, up from just a few thousand a day in early July.

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More than two billion people worldwide have been vaccinated and information about COVID-19 vaccines is now widely available, but many protesters said they felt they were being rushed into something they’re not ready to do.

Celine Augen, a secretary at a doctor’s office, is prepared to lose her job under the new measure because she doesn’t want to get vaccinated.

Ayoub Bouglia, an engineer, said, “We need to wait a little bit before the French people can decide ... I think a part of France is always going to be unwilling and that blackmail and threats won’t work.”

In Italy, thousands of protesters gathered in Rome, Milan, Verona and other cities Saturday, protesting the government’s decision to require a “Green Pass” to access indoor dining, local fairs, stadiums, cinemas and other gathering places.

In the northern city of Verona, several thousand people marched down the main shopping street, chanting “No Green Pass!” and “Freedom!” They included families with young children, medical doctors who said they are risking their jobs not to get vaccinated and people who likened the Green Pass decision to decisions by fascist dictatorships.

The demonstrations proceeded peacefully and dissipated into summer evening crowds.

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Despite the vocal opposition, Italy’s new requirement, effective Aug. 3, has led to a boom in vaccine appointments in Italy, where so far, nearly half of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

Colleen Barry in Milan and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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