Hundreds of cars, campervans and trucks taking part in a Canada-style protest convoy against Covid regulations were preparing to enter Brussels Monday where Belgian officials have already banned a demonstration following a weekend attempt in Paris.
Around 1,300 vehicles from across France had arrived near the French border town of Lille by late Sunday, according to police.
The protest is one of several worldwide inspired by the truckers’ standoff with authorities in Canada.
Camped at a parking lot near Lille, protesters brandished French flags and chanted “We won’t give up” and “Freedom, freedom.”
“We’ll go to Brussels to try to block it, to fight against this policy of permanent control,” said Jean-Pierre Schmit, an unemployed 58-year-old who came from Toulouse.
For Sandrine, 45, who came from Lyon, the government’s response to the Covid crisis had revealed that “we’re losing our freedoms bit by bit, in an insidious way.”
The latest self-proclaimed “freedom convoy” comes after 97 people were arrested at the weekend in Paris where thousands of demonstrators defied a ban on attempting to blockade the French capital.
In France, the demonstrators took aim at the “vaccine pass” required to enter restaurants, cafes and many other public venues implemented as part of President Emmanuel Macron’s inoculation drive.
Belgian authorities have banned all demonstrations in the capital with “motorised vehicles” and said they had taken measures to prevent the blocking of the Brussels region.
Brussels police have posted on social media warning that vehicle protests are banned and advising against travelling to the capital by car, channelling convoys to a parking lot on the outskirts of the city as the only place where a static protest will be tolerated.
Some participants in a similar demonstration organised in The Hague have also announced their intention to go to Belgium.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had however advised the demonstrators to abandon their plans to come to Brussels.
“I say to those who come from abroad: look at the rules in Belgium. We never had rules that were too hard and we don’t have so many anymore. So complain at home,” he said Friday.
Checks are planned at the border and vehicles coming to the capital despite the ban will be diverted, Belgian authorities warned.
Brussels airport also advised travellers to take precautions on Monday and come by train for fear of blocking access routes.
The self-proclaimed “freedom convoy” is one of several worldwide inspired by a truckers’ standoff with authorities in Canada over vaccine mandates.
Protest organisers have been calling for weeks for the removal of Trudeau’s government, although most of the restrictive measures were put in place by provincial governments.
On Tuesday, the organisers withdrew an unlawful demand that the nation’s governor general, the representative of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, force federal and provincial governments to lift all Covid-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates. They now say they support Canada’s constitution and the democratic process.
François Laporte, the president of Teamsters Canada, which represents over 55,000 drivers, including 15,000 long-haul truckers, said the protests do not represent the industry in which 90% of drivers are vaccinated.
The Freedom Convoy “and the despicable display of hate led by the political Right and shamefully encouraged by elected conservative politicians does not reflect the values of Teamsters Canada, nor the vast majority of our members,” Laporte said in a statement.
Canada’s largest trucking company is virtually untouched by the vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the U.S.-Canada border, said Alain Bédard, chairman and CEO of TFI International Inc.
“Vaccination at TFI is not an issue at all,” he said. The company’s few unvaccinated drivers are kept in Canada.
Locals say they are being terrorised
The protests have also infuriated people who live around downtown Ottawa, including neighbourhoods near Parliament Hill, the seat of the federal government.
Dave Weatherall, a federal civil servant, lives near the truckers’ prime staging area in a city-owned parking lot outside of the downtown core. “They’re using the lot to terrorise people,” he said.
“It’s the first time since having kids that I’ve seriously wondered about the world we brought them into. I always figured they could handle most things the world will throw at them, but this feels different,” he added.