On Monday, the French government and health authorities are stepping up the country’s vaccination campaign against Covid-19 – a process complicated by widespread skepticism about the inoculation that has encompassed the usual global conspiracy theories.
For weeks, polls have suggested that up to 60% of the French population do not want to be vaccinated. As the government’s vaccination operation enters its third week, official figures show that by Saturday at least 93,000 people had received the vaccine – a number much lower than elsewhere in Europe, including the UK, in Germany and Italy.
Laurent-Henri Vignaud, a science historian whose 2019 book Antivax, co-authored with immunology specialist Françoise Salvadori, examines vaccine skepticism in the West since the 18th century, says polls suggesting that the French would refuse the vaccine.
“There is a very big difference between what the French say and what they do,” he told the Guardian. “And surveys whose methodology and questions may seem abstract don’t reflect what happens when people know where they will get the vaccine, what it does, how, when and why.”
Vaccine skeptics have been around as long as vaccines, but for years polls have suggested France has more of them than most of its European neighbors – an odd reputation given that immunology pioneer Louis Pasteur was French and is a fierce national pride figure.
Pr Jocelyn Raude, an expert in health behavior at the Ecole des Hautes Études en Santé Publique who has studied the anti-vaccine movement, says that as recently as 2005, polls showed 90% support for vaccines, ” which seems incredible today ”.
However, by the turn of the 21st century, the seeds of doubt had already been sown.
In the 1990s, a mass campaign to vaccinate French children against hepatitis B coincided with an increase in multiple sclerosis cases, although studies have never found a convincing link between the two.
In 1991 there was a medical scandal unrelated specifically to vaccines when it was discovered that health officials had knowingly distributed blood products contaminated with HIV to hemophiliacs in the 1980s. Several ministers were subsequently charged with manslaughter.
However, Raude said it was the 2009 H1N1 scandal, in which the government massively overordered 94million doses of the vaccine at a cost of 869million euros (£ 780million), that fueled skepticism. current approach to vaccines.
The Ministry of Health subsequently canceled more than half of the order, but the damage was done. Opposition parties have criticized the waste of public money and accused officials of being in cahoots with big drug companies. In the end, 323 people in France died from H1N1, only 6 million people were vaccinated and 19 million doses of vaccine were destroyed. An official estimate puts the cost of the debacle at 382 million euros.
Raude says skepticism escalated when some high profile French celebrities began to express doubts about the vaccines, relayed by emerging social networks.
Then came the Mediator scandal. The diabetes drug, widely but incorrectly prescribed to those looking to lose weight, has been linked to between 500 and 1,200 deaths over more than three decades.
Mediator maker Servier has been charged with manslaughter, and 12 people found themselves in the dock in a criminal trial last year, including officials who were also paid as consultants to pharmaceutical companies. The company and those charged deny any wrongdoing. The judgment is expected in March.
“It was a tipping point. The Mediator scandal has validated the idea of corruption between officials and pharmaceutical laboratories in France; that it was business and not health security, ”says Raude.
Another cause, he says, is the lack of trust in doctors and scientists.
“It is not new that the French lack confidence in political leaders, but there is a low level of confidence in medical authorities in France. The bottom line is that if you don’t trust the experts, you don’t follow their advice. ”
Vignaud says the vaccine skepticism is less against the vaccine itself than those promoting it, reflecting a distrust of “politicians, doctors and high-level experts and journalists.”
“France has no harsher and faster anti-vaxxers than elsewhere, what it has is … a certain dissatisfaction with the political class,” he said.
“There is a strong expectation from the State, but we are definitely disappointed: we see it with the vaccination program: some say it’s too slow, others it’s too fast. Everyone is disappointed. ”
The movie Hold-Up, a very ridiculous and debunked epic claiming that Covid-19 is a global conspiracy, heightened mistrust and was shared by influential people.
Among those who try to fight against disinformation with facts and humor, the Facebook site Les Vaxxeuses. “Vaccines are the greatest medical breakthrough… don’t let lies make you doubt the benefits,” the website says.
The ministers are convinced that France’s vaccination program will catch up in the coming weeks, insisting that it is a “marathon, not a sprint”.
“Once access to the vaccine becomes a reality, people will have the vaccine. They have had enough, ”says Vignaud.
Raude agrees that the government’s “slow steps” strategy appears to be working. “The government has been slow and careful not to scare people… when the French see the benefits, they will.