France was once home to immunization father Louis Pasteur, but it is now one of the most vaccine – skeptical nations on earth – a pressing problem as it prepares for one of the largest vaccination campaigns in its history.
Britain’s announcement on Wednesday that it approved a high-pressure Covid-19 vaccine for general use in other countries to protect its citizens from a virus that has killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide.
French President Emmanuel Macron had already said he aimed to start vaccinating those most at risk of the virus in early 2021, followed by a second phase aimed at the public between April and June.
But he faces a tough task of persuading enough people to get jabs to achieve herd immunity – the threshold by which the entire population is protected from the virus.
The risks are “exaggerated”
A survey in Le Journal du Dimanche this weekend showed that only 41 percent of French people planned to be vaccinated, compared to the 58 percent registered in a recent Gallup survey in the United States, where coronavirus and vaccine skepticism are also high.
Macron rejected a call from Green leader Yannick Jadot to make jab mandatory, saying he hoped to win over people with “conviction” and “openness” instead.
Richard Lamette, a 65-year-old plumber in Paris, told AFP he had no plans to get the Covid shot “until it has been thoroughly tested on the population”.
He pointed out that several of his really younger colleagues had contracted the virus but recovered within ten days and said he felt the dangers had been “a little exaggerated”.
“Other diseases kill a lot more people, like cancer and cigarettes, and they don’t make much of a fuss about them,” he argued.
‘Yellow vest’ influence
The French have long been considered a nation of pills with one of the world’s highest levels of use for antibiotics and antidepressants, and in recent years they have become increasingly suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry.
The anti-capitalist protest movement “yellow vest” which broke out in opposition to fuel taxes at the end of 2018 reinforced conspiracy theories that the government should be seen as a pharmaceutical company – theories driven by the increase in the number of mandatory jabs for children from three to 11 in 2018.
A Gallup poll of 140,000 people in 44 countries showed that the French were the most vaccine-skeptical in the world, one in three said they did not believe the vaccines were safe.
The poll by the Journal du Dimanche showed the strongest skepticism among supporters of right-wing extremist and far-left political parties.
Health experts say public confidence in vaccinations began to erode following a scandal in the 1980s when hundreds of hemophilia were infected with HIV after receiving transfusions.
Revelations in 2009 that a popular dieting drug Mediator caused serious heart damage and may have killed over 2,000 people further deepened the suspicion of pharmaceutical companies.
Swine flu fiasco
Many French people are also wrinkling on mass vaccination campaigns after a fight against swine flu in 2009 ended with the state burning millions of superfluous jabs and costing hundreds of millions of euros.
For Jocelyn Raude, professor at the EHESP School of Public Health in Rennes, the swine flu procedure marked a change in public opinion.
A number of doctors and pharmacists led by surgeon Henri Joyeux, based in the southern city of Montpellier, began beating the anti-vaccine drum.
Joyeux, who has 175,000 followers on Facebook, “gave the (anti-vaccine) movement credibility,” Raude said.
On his website, the doctor likens the race for a Covid jab to the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Geographer Lucie Guimier, who wrote her dissertation on the anti-vaccine movement, found that it was strongest in Marseille, home of Didier Raoult, the professor who designated the anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a cure for coronavirus.
“The idea has taken root that it is a rebel city against the central state. It is quite dangerous when it comes to public health, she said.
Marseille’s deputy mayor Samia Ghali is among the skeptics.
Ghali accused the government of confusing her response to the coronavirus pandemic and told BFMTV in September that she did not “want to serve as a guinea pig” for a Covid-19 shot.