Some French expatriates are struggling with the pandemic-related formalities of a trip home as the sacrosanct summer holiday season begins. Many believed getting inoculated in their countries of residence would also give them access to France's Covid-19 health pass to ease the journey. But French authorities are proving reluctant to recognise the vaccination status of non-residents.
Residents of France received a QR code along with their vaccinations that serves as proof of their inoculation status. Registering the matrix barcode online offers the fully vaccinated access to travel and large-scale events without the need for additional Covid-19 testing.
But for French nationals living in countries with varied methods of certifying vaccinations, travel to France is becoming a headache.
While French residents of other European Union countries can have their vaccination status recognised in France thanks to a European health pass that came into effect on July 1, getting that green light is another story for French expats outside the EU. The formalities are proving a challenge for those who resettled in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in particular.
Those French nationals – some 2.5 million people, according to foreign ministry figures – must present a vaccination certificate from their country of residence upon arrival in France. But figuring out how to obtain such a document can be a challenge.
"How do I obtain a vaccination certificate with a QR code?" "Can the health pass be downloaded?" "Can I get vaccinated in France by providing my passport as ID?" The list of questions from French nationals abroad grows daily on France's healthcare service website.
French mistrust of foreign certificates
"As residents of the United States, we were vaccinated against Covid-19 and we have paper certificates from the American CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)," one would-be traveller explained on the French Social Security internet forum. "We are going to travel to France in June. How can we get the QR code that proves we were vaccinated in the United States from here?" the person asked.
"Healthcare professionals currently only provide the QR code, which allows proof of vaccination to be registered on the TousAntiCovid smartphone app, to people vaccinated in France," the national health service replied.
Why the impasse? "The authorities are afraid such documents could be falsified," Senator Évelyne Renaud-Garabedian, of the conservative Les Républicains party, told FRANCE 24.
Renaud-Garabedian, who is one of 12 senators elected to represent French nationals resident abroad, said her compatriots should all have access to the European system.
"French people who live outside the EU must be able to benefit from the European health pass. Their vaccination certificate must be recognised and available via a QR code that way," she said, noting that French authorities have announced a plan to address the outstanding problems but that it remains "under consideration".
For now, French nationals abroad who have received one of the vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson/Janssen) must contact France's Assurance maladie, the national health insurer, who can then provide a "foreign vaccination certificate recognised at borders to enter France".
Meanwhile, negotiations are under way at the European Commission level. "Where the Commission is satisfied that a non-EU country issues certificates in compliance with standards and systems, which are interoperable with the EU system, the Commission can adopt a decision on the basis of which such non-EU country certificates would be accepted according to the same conditions as EU Digital COVID Certificates," the Commission's website explains.
In practice, however, ambiguities remain. "When I request information from the ministry on the vaccination of French nationals abroad, I am told that it has no answers to give me," said Renaud-Garabedian, exasperated.
Vaccine availability abroad is another problem facing French expats. Indeed, while the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recognises four vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognises four additional ones: the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines as well as two AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in India and South Korea. As a result, in some non-EU countries, none of the available vaccines are recognised by the EMA.
'A lack of communication and coherency'
"I received two doses of the Sinopharm vaccine but the EU won't hear of it," said François Legros, a teacher at the Jean-Mermoz French high school in Dakar, Senegal. "I am going home to France on Thursday for the holidays but I feel frustrated because I won't be considered as having been vaccinated by the authorities there. I won't be able to go to concerts, for example.”
Legros could have chosen the AstraZeneca vaccine instead, but the waiting period between each injection was longer than the gap between two Sinopharm doses. He was concerned about not being fully vaccinated before travelling to France. Now his worry is his arrival on home soil.
"The authorities only told me to that we had to undergo a PCR test before departure," Legros said. France's foreign ministry, however, says travellers arriving from Senegal must self-isolate for seven days if they haven't received a vaccine approved by the EMA.
Renaud-Garabedian said she hears accounts like Legros's all the time. The senator is also president of the Alliance solidaire des Français de l'étranger (ASFE), which seeks to defend the interests of French nationals settled abroad. She slams "a lack of communication and of coherency" on the part of French authorities.
"I understand that the French foreign ministry is swamped, but we have entered the summer holiday period. French nationals abroad want to come to France to visit their families," she explained.
The opposition lawmaker has asked the authorities to help countries that don’t have access to vaccines recognised by the EMA, notably “to send extra vaccines to those countries for the French living there".
Another solution would be for the EU to recognise all of the vaccines approved by the WHO. That was the request made on Thursday by Covax, the system aiming to assist lower-income countries with access to Covid-19 vaccines. That scheme depends on distributing the Covishield vaccine, an Indian version of AstraZeneca that is not recognised by the EU.
"Any measure that only allows people protected by a subset of WHO-approved vaccines to benefit from the re-opening of travel into and (within) that region would effectively create a two-tier system, further widening the global vaccine divide and exacerbating the inequities we have already seen in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines," the alliance that runs Covax said in a statement last week.
While the French government is encouraging expatriates to get vaccinated in their countries of residence for medical reasons, it has said that it is possible to be vaccinated in France for free without providing the national health insurance card, or Carte Vitale. In that case, presenting an ID like a passport suffices, as would a certificate from the Caisse des Français à l'étranger, a voluntary social security scheme for expatriates.
Getting vaccinated on a trip home to France can, however, be complicated by the obligatory wait times between injections. Pfizer and Moderna call for at least a three-week gap between doses while AstraZeneca requires two inoculations at least nine weeks apart. For this reason many visiting French expatriates opt for the Johnson & Johnson (known in France as the Janssen) vaccine, which requires only a single dose and can be administered by a pharmacist.
This article has been translated from the original in French.