How Europe's Vaccine Campaign Descended Into a Hot Mess

Petty squabbles and abrupt U-turns have seen French President Emmanuel Macron become the figurehead of Europe's new chaotic era.
March 19, 2021, 1:30pm
Arrogance and Complacency: How France's Vaccine Campaign Became a Hot Mess
Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris this week. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

PARIS –A third wave of the COVID pandemic is threatening to sweep across Europe, propelled by political malaise and chaotic decision-making.

Petty squabbles over vaccine exports, snail-paced vaccination campaigns, and abrupt U-turns in policy including the recent AstraZeneca debacle have in the space of a few short weeks tarnished the EU’s progressive image.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron is being savaged as the figurehead of Europe’s new chaotic era. Daily newspaper Libération dubbed him the “The Élyséen variant”, in a withering reference to the office of the head of state and the highly-transmissible COVID variant that was first detected in the UK.

“Macron is probably responsible for a big third wave hitting France,” says Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European Politics at University College London. “Up until a few months ago, his approach seemed to be working. But complacency and arrogance have played a role in everything quickly nosediving.”

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On Thursday night, French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced a four-week lockdown in 16 French departments, including the Paris region of Ile-de-France, which means twenty-one million people – a third of the population – will be affected. 

“The epidemic situation is accelerating rapidly even as we approach the terrible milestone of 100,000 deaths,” he said, as France recorded 35,000 new COVID cases for a second consecutive day – a level not reached since November. “The situation is deteriorating. Our responsibility now is that it does not escape us.”

Mixed-messages and apparent indecisiveness have fatally undermined the French government’s vaccine efforts, according to political analysts, which were already floundering in the face of sky-high anti-vax sentiment.

For months, Macron refused to introduce a lockdown in Paris and take wider measures across the country, despite prominent doctors including Jean-François Delfraissy, president of France’s Scientific Council, calling for him to do so since the end of January. 

That refusal has led to discontent even among Macron’s closest allies. “Doubt has set in between knowing if we win one day by not re-introducing a lockdown or if, on the contrary, we lose one,” Stanislas Guerini, head of Macron’s ruling LREM party, said on Wednesday, according to weekly magazine Le Canard enchaîné. “Perhaps it is stubbornness not to lockdown.”

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Critics have pointed out that the latest lockdown isn’t exactly a lockdown: although “non-essential” shops will close and travel is limited, those in affected regions will have no time restrictions on being outdoors and schools will remain open.

“We’ve been calling for restrictions to be introduced for months,” says Dominique Costagliola, an epidemiologist at Sorbonne University in Paris, pointing to the rise of the UK COVID variant, which now makes up 75% of all cases in France. “It’s good news action has been taken. But now that they have finally arrived, the measures aren’t so strict. Let’s hope they will have a real impact on the crisis.”

Uncertainty has also infected other parts of the French political mind. On Sunday, Prime Minister Castex said he “hadn’t the slightest doubt” about the safety of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, following health concerns – quickly rebutted by the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation – that had been raised by Germany over potential blood clot side effects.

But less than 24 hours later, Macron announced France would follow Germany in suspending use of the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, leading to a domino effect of moves by more than a dozen European countries.

On Thursday, after the European Medicines Agency once again reiterated that the vaccine was “safe and efficient”, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said vaccinations would recommence.

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Brigitte Autran, emeritus professor of Immunology at the Sorbonne University and member of the Scientific Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, calls those events a form of “crowd panic” on an international level.

“Like when you're in a crowd, you see people running, then you start running, everyone starts running, not knowing exactly why,” she says. “Those decisions were less about statistics and reason than panic and imitation.”

In the final pendulum swing of confusion, Castex is set to receive his AstraZeneca jab on Friday afternoon “to show my fellow citizens that the vaccine is the way out of this crisis and it can be taken in all security”.

But it may be too little too late. A poll in France on Wednesday, begun just after France announced its suspension, found just 20% of people trusted the AstraZeneca vaccine compared with 52% who said they trust the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. 

That trust had already been seriously damaged after Macron baselessly declared in January that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65, before swiftly U-turning. The spat was prompted after AstraZeneca drastically scaled back projected vaccine deliveries for the early part of 2021, prompting the European Union to threaten to impose controls on exports of Europe-produced doses. The bloc had already been slow to authorise the vaccine, taking a month longer than Britain.

Europe’s goal of vaccinating 70% of residents by September as such now looks extremely difficult – a particularly bitter pill as the post-Brexit Britain races ahead with its own efforts. The UK has administered 39 vaccine doses per 100 people, while the EU has given just 11. The detection of a new COVID variant at a French hospital in Brittany this week has not helped matters.

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“The EU has not come out well from this,” says Professor Marlière. “At all levels – the presidency of the EU as well as heads of state – Europe has put a very poor show so far. For Macron, it’s not a very good picture.”

These missteps have led to an atmosphere in which French media report that health workers had turned their backs on Macron when he spoke to staff at their hospital in Yvelines this week. The claim has since been debunked as a trick of perspective.

Left-field initiatives have also added to the picture of strange decision-making. France’s announcement of a citizens' committee on vaccines – composed of 35 randomly-selected French people – to create “proposals relating to the questions, fears, resistance and ethical questions that may arise from vaccination against COVID-19” has been widely mocked as “delusional”.

Such chequered leadership could have long-term impacts on the French public’s trust in traditional political institutions, experts warn, with France’s presidential elections due to take place next year.

As far-right leader Marine Le Pen is threatening an unprecedented victory in the polls, Macron quickly needs to lose his status as the sick man of Europe.

“The situation is volatile politically in France and Le Pen is high in polls,” says Marlière. “Macron didn’t want discontent to become too high by locking down. But he’s lost on both fronts. I think he’s clearly failed.”

19/03/2021: UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify that French health workers did not turn their backs on Macron when he spoke to staff at a hospital in Yvelines, as had originally been reported by French media. The video has since been debunked.