How France Became the Global Centre of Vaccine Resistance

Vive la Résistance – to vaccines.
January 21, 2021, 4:03pm
How France Became the Global Centre of Vaccine Resistance
A man gestures and takes a selfie during a protest against lockdown restrictions in Lyon in November. Photo: JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

PARIS – In the international race to vaccinate as much of the world’s population as possible against COVID-19, France is set to be one of the last countries in Europe to cross the finish line.

Between a sluggish start to the vaccination campaign and an exceptionally high level of vaccine scepticism within the French population, France has fallen to the back of the pack, with the gulf between it and its neighbours widening every week.

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Despite having all started their vaccination campaigns at around the same time, Dec. 27, France is miles behind Germany, Italy, Austria and Spain. As of the 21st of January, the total number of vaccine doses per 100 people in France stands at 0.74. That compares to 1.46 for Germany, 1.98 for Italy, 2.07 for Spain.

In absolute numbers, that translates to 692,777 people in France who received their first jab so far. Meanwhile, Italy crossed the one million threshold last week. And in the UK, which was the first country in the West to approve the coronavirus vaccine and begin vaccinating its general population, 4.6 million people have received their first dose.

Critics have blasted the French government for its glacial pace, describing its vaccination rollout as excessively bureaucratic and disorganised. And some accuse politicians of being too willing to pander to vaccine sceptics, who make up an exceptionally large percentage of the French electorate.

For history buffs, the notion that France would emerge the most resistant to getting the coronavirus vaccine in a global poll of 15 countries may seem baffling, given that vaccines were pioneered and developed by Frenchman Louis Pasteur. But in an Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey released at the end of December, just 40 percent of French respondents said they would get vaccinated , compared to 77 percent of people in the UK.

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Experts say a series of public health scandals, a deep-seated distrust of the government, a feeble understanding of the sciences, and a dash of contrarian Gallic defiance are among some of the reasons the French have become so resistant to the vaccine.

Bénédicte Iemetti is a caregiver for psychiatric patients and lives with her husband, a home care nurse, and their 8-year-old son in the Loire-Atlantique area in western France. Despite being among the most at-risk from their jobs, Iemetti believes that if she leads a healthy lifestyle, her body will be able to conquer the virus. She is a vegetarian, takes probiotics and supplements like zinc and Vitamins D3 and C every day. She doesn’t smoke or drink and steers clear of processed foods.

“We believe it’s better to take pre-emptive measures than to focus on a cure,” Iemetti said in a phone interview.

“If I prepare my body with a healthy lifestyle, I can protect myself against the virus.” No evidence exists that vitamins and supplements can prevent infection of the coronavirus. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are 95 and 94 percent effective respectively.

Iemetti fits what science historian Laurent-Henri Vignaud describes as the “classic anti-vaxxer” profile. The co-author of “Anti-Vax: The History of Vaccine Resistance from the 18th Century to Today”, Vignaud describes the typical anti-vaxxer as an educated, middle-class, financially and socio-economically stable individual whose primary objection to vaccines is rooted in health and safety concerns.

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“Often they construct a protective narrative over the family circle and view the vaccine as an intrusion into the heart of their family, a violation of the familial temple,” he told VICE World News. “They believe in natural plant-based medicine and are against the idea of putting chemicals into their bodies.”

But vaccine reticence in France is still a relatively recent phenomenon, Vignaud points out, that can be traced directly to a series of back-to-back public health scandals that rocked the country’s faith in the public health system.

The first incident happened in the 90s, when researchers raised the possibility of a connection between a national hepatitis B vaccination campaign and a rise in multiple sclerosis cases across the country. A large number of subsequent studies have since debunked the theory, but it still looms large in the collective psyche of anti-vaxxers.

During the outbreak of the H1N1 flu in 2009, also known as swine flu, the French government spent 370 million euros on vaccines and opened vaccination centres across the country, hoping to vaccinate 65 million people. In the end, only 5.36 million showed up for their jabs; 312 people died from the virus (less than the seasonal flu); and the government was lambasted for wasting taxpayer money and accused of colluding with Big Pharma.

In 2010 the country was rocked by another health scandal, this time over diabetes drug Mediator, which was also prescribed as an appetite suppressant for weight loss for decades, and linked to 500 deaths. The Mediator trial wrapped up last summer. A former senator stands accused of deliberately modifying a parliamentary report to skew in favour of French pharmaceutical company Servier Laboratories. A decision in that case is expected in March.

Anger over the swine flu vaccination rollout and the Mediator controversy dramatically eroded confidence in the public health system, said Jocelyn Raude, a researcher and associate professor in social psychology at the EHESP School of Public Health in Rennes, France.

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And though it’s not uncommon for many European countries to express low levels of confidence in their politicians, Raude points out that the French government sits at another significant disadvantage.

“What is very important is the way a population perceives their medication institutions. That includes the pharmaceutical industry, their family doctors and the public health authorities,” he said. “But since the Mediator scandal, over the last 10 years trust has declined. People have exceptionally low levels of trust in the public health system in France compared to other countries.”

Meanwhile, the COVID vaccine rollout has also birthed a new kind of French anti-vaxxer, Vignaud says: the conspiracy theorist.

“The traditional French anti-vaxxer is all about alternative medicine and protecting their family, not about vaccines being used by the rich to exterminate the poor or aliens on Mars,” he said. “This kind of conspiratorial discourse traditionally held little space within anti-vaxxer groups.”

But in the last year, Vignaud said he’s seen a raft of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists pop up from out of nowhere to take up a lot of space in the anti-vaxxer scene.

“Conspiracy theorists have swallowed up the anti-vaxxer movement and hijacked their cause, especially on social media.”

Les Vaxxeuses is a Facebook group created in 2017 to combat misinformation after the government announced plans to introduce mandatory vaccinations for kids in 2018 and anti-vaxxer comments began proliferating on social media. The team is made up of 15 volunteers from across France, from all sorts of socio-economic and educational backgrounds.

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They operate in anonymity because they’ve received death threats from militant anti-vaxxer extremists. Theresa and Pierre (not their real names) say the most common objection and myth they encounter among coronavirus anti-vaxxers is that it was developed too fast and therefore not trustworthy, and that it will change their DNA, the latter of which is demonstrably false.

Theresa is a researcher for the state and has a background in microbiology, virology and chemistry. She also points to a deficit in science education as another possible reason for France’s vaccine misgivings.

“There is a more general problem in France with science education,” she said. “It’s clear that most French people don’t understand the sciences. For the French, a physician is a scientist, which is not the case.”

Iemetti, the caregiver from the Loire-Atlantique, cited the controversial French figure Dr. Louis Fouché in Marseille, a vocal coronavirus anti-vaxxer who falsely peddled a conspiracy theory about vaccines and nanoparticles, as her most trusted source of information. But Fouché is an anaesthesiologist. Not a vaccine specialist, not a virologist, not a microbiologist, not a scientist. Regardless, he boasts a large following among sceptics.

Pierre, an engineer, also blames media illiteracy in France for fuelling runaway conspiracy theories. No one is teaching children and young adults how to sort through and fact-check information they see online, he said.

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“In France, the internet is presented as a wonderful tool for accessing knowledge, but no one is telling kids that it also gives them access to a huge amount of bullshit,” he said. 

But Theresa is quick to point out that adults too, lack the basics in media literacy.

“I think a lot of people fail to understand that behind every request you make on Google, there’s just an algorithm, and that depending on what you’re asking, you will get different answers.”

Last week, a joke about France’s rebellious and paradoxical nature made the rounds on Twitter, garnering more than 8,000 retweets and 45,000 likes.

It loosely translates as“To vaccinate a French person, all you have to do is tell them they’re not entitled.”

Amid the fiasco of the slow vaccine rollout, concerns of delayed shipments and of a potential shortage in the coming weeks, public opinion seems to have shifted.

In the latest national survey released jointly by Franceinfo and Le Figaro on the 14th of January, 56 percent of respondents said they now wanted the jab, in what pollster Odaxa-Backbone described as a “spectacular turnaround.”

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In the same poll, 81 percent of respondents said they felt the vaccine rollout was too slow.

Instead of sprinting out of the starting blocks, France was criticised for taking the tortoise approach, requiring elders in nursing homes to book pre-vaccination consultations with their doctor at least five days before their appointment. The ensuing avalanche of criticism prompted the government to revise their timetable and vaccinate more priority groups ahead of schedule, and to open vaccination centres across the country. The government maintains it will have vaccinated one million people by the end of the month.

Unintentional as it may have been, could reverse psychology have played out in the government’s strategy and worked in its favour?

“The cynical view would be that people want to get vaccinated because there is a lack of vaccines,” Theresa said. “The optimistic view would be that more people are becoming receptive to the new information coming out about the vaccine’s safety and the few side effects.”

For her part, Iemetti said she hasn’t closed her mind to anything.

“Maybe in a year you’ll call me back and I’ll be able to say, great, we’re living again, I was wrong. It’s very good to be able to admit when you’re wrong.”●