France’s Louis Pasteur may have played a key role in fostering the science of vaccinations, but these days his compatriots rank among the world’s most fervent anti-vaxxers. With COVID vaccines starting to be approved, the French government faces a monumental challenge convincing enough French to get vaccinated to develop the necessary herd immunity.
Failing to do so could not only slow a domestic economic recovery, but the country could find itself isolated if other nations refuse to allow travel to and from France. Such a scenario would be devastating for the nation’s tourism industry which is already limping after 9 months of COVID and two national lockdowns.
The deep vaccine skepticism is particularly shocking in a nation that prides itself on its scientific prowess and its embrace of fraternité — a value that celebrates the common good.
Yet according to a poll published on December 3 by CNEWS, 61% of French said they would not get the COVID vaccine when it becomes available. That was in line with a poll released 2 days earlier by Le Journal du Dimanche which put the figure at 59%. That was slightly higher than the 50% who told Franceinfo in November that they would not accept the vaccine.
Even a poll by France’s National Public Health agency was only slightly more optimistic. On December 3, Santé Publique reported that 53% would “certainly” or “probably” get the vaccine. But that was down from 64% in July.
The details of the Santé Publique polls also contained some surprising details. Women are far less likely than men to want the vaccine. And only 55% of nurses said they would get the vaccine.
While the polls offer a slight range, in general, they place France far behind most other major nations in terms of vaccine acceptance. As France Inter reports, up to 87% in India and 85% in China say they would get vaccinated. Closer to home, in the U.K. it’s 79%, and in Germany it’s 69%. The United States is a bit closer to France at 64%.
Overall, about three out of four adults around the world say they will get the vaccine, according to the World Economic Forum.
Even the global level of vaccine acceptance may not be enough to successfully tame COVID, according to Arnaud Bernaert, head of health initiatives at the World Economic Forum.
“The 26% lack of confidence in the vaccine is significant enough to compromise the effectiveness of the deployment of a vaccine against COVID-19,” Bernaert said in a statement. “It is therefore essential that governments and the private sector come together to build confidence and ensure that production capacity meets the global supply of a COVID-19 vaccination program. This will require cooperation between researchers and manufacturers as well as agreements of public funding that will remove restrictions on access to the vaccine.”
France’s vaccine skeptics
So how did France become a nation of vaccine skeptics?
In an interview on France Inter, Conspiracy Watch director Rudy Reichstadt said part of the issue may be past policy failures in France related to vaccines. He said there is a profound mistrust of the relationship between the government and “Big Pharma” in France.
And in general, there is historically a lack of urgency around vaccines in France because of the perception that most related diseases have been vanquished for good.
“Anti-vaccination is a ‘disease’ of rich and developed countries where vaccination coverage is high enough that a certain number of diseases which are prevented by vaccination have ceased to circulate,” he said. “So the idea that vaccination is a worse evil than the disease it claims to prevent takes hold more easily.”
The vaccine skepticism seems to be linked to a growing mistrust of government and institutions such as medicine and research. This is particularly strong among members of France’s far-right Rassemblement National party and the far-left La France Insoumise where respectively only 27% and 26% say they will get the vaccine.
More specifically with the COVID vaccines, many French believe they have been developed too rapidly and without enough testing.
“The first is to say that we doubt the effectiveness of the vaccine, that we will not have enough perspective on the vaccine because the time is too short,” said Antoine Bristielle, associate professor of social sciences, on the same France Inter program. “The second reason is quite similar: these are people who are afraid of side effects.”
Beyond that, France has its own vaccine skeptics on YouTube and Facebook. Most recently, this included the release of “Hold-Up,” a French documentary on November 11 exploring what it claims is a global conspiracy around COVID. Eventually banned by YouTube, it has still been viewed 2.5 million times, according to France Inter. And it continues to be download, re-posted, and shared across social media.
Attitudes haven’t been helped by Dr. Didier Raoult, who gained global attention for his promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID. Facebook fan groups of Raoult have developed a strong anti-vaccine sentiment. Raoult has recently said he is not convinced about the efficacy of the current crop of COVID vaccines.
“The program I’ve read so far sounds like science fiction to me,” he said, according to Midi Libre. “So far what I’ve seen is mostly advertising. I haven’t seen any articles. Scientists: I’m waiting to see some real data.”
France’s vaccine strategy
For all of these reasons, France faces bigger challenges rolling out its vaccination plans in the coming months. Right out of the gate, there have been some stumbles.
The government appeared to appoint Louis-Charles Viossat to the role of vaccine czar to oversee these efforts, even referring to him as “Monsieur Vaccine.” Viossat had deep connections to the government, but it was only later revealed that his resumé included stints at pharmaceutical companies, including Lilly which is developing a COVID vaccine.
Quite suddenly, the government dropped the nickname and clarified that Viossat only had an advisory role. On December 3, doctor and researcher Alain Fischer was named “Monsieur Vaccine” to coordinate the development and logistics of the nation’s vaccine strategy. Fisher had previously co-authored an editorial in Le Monde saying that such a strategy must include a strong and transparent communication campaign to overcome what it called the “valley of trust.”
For now, vaccinations will happen in 3 phases, with the first round starting on January 4 and targeting the “most fragile,” including people in nursing homes. Sometime in February, the program will be expanded to the elderly more generally and people suffering conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID’s effects. Phase 3 won’t start until the Spring when a campaign of general vaccination will begin. The vaccine will be free in all cases. But particularly for the last phase, details are still being worked out as to how and where the vaccine will be administered.
One of the most divisive debates continues to be over the question of whether to make vaccination obligatory. For the moment, the government has said it would not require anyone to get the vaccine. However, Yannick Jadot, a French Green Party member of the European Parliament, came out strongly for such a program.
“Look at the trauma our societies are going through,” he said in an interview on France Info. “We cannot afford today to extend the period of confinement, the period of the cultural, social, and economic collapse of our country.”
Others have suggested a more modest version of this, perhaps requiring caregivers to be vaccinated. But many others worry that any move to make vaccines obligatory could backfire and stoke fears among the conspiracy-minded French. “This would fuel even more mistrust of the vaccine against Covid,” warned French Senator Bernard Jomier.
While the vaccine strategy is being defined, the nation’s tourism industry is holding its breath.
French tourism took another hit this month when the government refused to let ski stations reopen their slopes to the general public until at least January. Since easing its second lockdown last month, France has seen its drop in COVID cases slow and then begin to climb again. While residents will be able to travel freely starting December 15, an 8 p.m. curfew will remain in effect and large New Year’s Eve gatherings are effectively banned.
Still, the announcement of vaccines in November has also brought a glimmer of hope to tourism officials. In a study by travel website Kayak.fr, searches for international trips for the holidays (not possible as it turns out) jumped 56% following the vaccine announcements, an indication of the hunger to resume travel.
Yet, a poll by L’Echo Touristique of members of the Club Tourisme et Technologie, an industry association and think tank, indicated that 75% believe their industry won’t really get back on its feet until the vaccines have been widely deployed and people feel safe and secure.
“The economy may be resilient, but it threatens to implode,” read a L’Echo editorial. “Especially travel.”