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‘Tous Pourris’: Why is France So Sceptical of Vaccines?

Natasha Livingstone explores the prevalence of anti-vaxxer sentiments among the French population and its potential link to high-profile corruption charges faced by the country’s political figures

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. Photo: MYKOLA LAZARENKO/Wikimedia Commons

‘Tous Pourris’Why is France So Sceptical of Vaccines?

Natasha Livingstone explores the prevalence of anti-vaxxer sentiments among the French population and its potential link to high-profile corruption charges faced by the country’s political figures

Last November, a documentary went ‘viral’ on French social media. Featuring scientists, researchers and a former health minister – who later said that he was unaware of the film’s thesis and dissociated himself from it – Hold-Up argued that the Coronavirus was created so that the ‘New World Order’ could enslave humanity. It also cast doubt on the utility of face masks and questioned the purpose of vaccines. 

As far as misinformation about the pandemic goes, the content of this documentary was not particularly novel. As in other countries, anti-vaxxer sentiment in France has drummed up concerns that vaccines are unsafe or will create second-class citizens and a health dictatorship.

But millions of French people watched this documentary – and there are concerns that its success is a symptom of mass anti-vaxxer sentiment in the country. 

An Ipsos-World Economic Forum study published in December indicated that only 40% of people in France intend to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Research published in February predicted that nearly 30% of the French working-age population would refuse the vaccine outright. Such hesitancy is not unique to the Coronavirus, with a Wellcome Trust survey across 140 countries ranking France as the most vaccine-sceptic country in the world as far back as June 2019. 

But why is this the case?

A Political Crisis

For starters, several ministers were charged with manslaughter after health authorities knowingly distributed blood products contaminated with HIV to haemophiliacs in the 1980s.

During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the French Government was also accused of prioritising big pharmaceutical companies by spending £780 million on 94 million vaccine doses, despite only six million people being vaccinated. Professor Jocelyn Raude, of the École des Hautes Études en Santé Publique, told the Guardian that this debacle contributed to vaccine scepticism in particular.

Another way of explaining the disparity is to ask: would you feel differently about a state-run vaccination drive if Theresa May or David Cameron had just been handed a prison sentence for corruption?

In early March, Nicolas Sarkozy, French President from 2007 to 2012, was sentenced to three years in jail, two of them suspended, for trying to bribe a judge. He also faces investigations relating to separate allegations. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was also handed a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzling public funds when he was mayor of Paris. 

More recent corruption convictions include the former Defence Minister François Léotard; François Fillon, a former Prime Minister under Sarkozy and a 2017 presidential candidate; Jérôme Cahuzac, a socialist former budget minister; Claude Guéant, Sarkozy’s former chief of staff; and Patrick Balkany, an ex-deputy from Sarkozy’s party and former mayor of a Paris suburb. 

French politicians have not suddenly become corrupt, according to Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London. They now face greater scrutiny from a younger, less reverent generation of judges.

Before now, he says, “you had this idea that whatever politicians in France did, they were above the law and nothing could happen to them. The public was highly sceptical and thought they were corrupt, but didn’t think anything would happen.”

Professor Marlière added that President Macron’s Government has been perceived by critics as being on the wrong side of recent scandals. The Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, whose role is to fight corruption, declared his “friendly support” for Sarkozy minutes after his prison sentence was announced and has himself been questioned by magistrates over rape allegations.

This series of cases is unlikely to have increased public confidence in the French Government which, according to a survey published in February by the French university Sciences Po, has not exceeded 35% in more than a decade. Most worryingly, this distrust is increasingly manifesting itself through vaccine hesitancy. 

“While I do not believe that French mistrust of vaccines can be directly attributed to specific corruption cases, I do think it is directly linked to a latent French ‘political crisis’,” says Laurent-Henri Vignaud, a historian who recently authored a history of the anti-vaxxer movement in France

“A general atmosphere of tous pourris (‘they’re all rotten’) does not facilitate confidence in the vaccine, which is essentially a state medicine, recommended and administered by the state on a national scale.”

Professor Marlière agrees: “Don’t forget that, when the pandemic started, it put an end to the two-year Yellow Vest movement, which was really about challenging the Government for lack of transparency. Being anti-vaccination is a way of saying ‘whatever the Government will say or do, I do not trust them to tell us the truth’. It’s more mainstream in France than in Britain and so probably more dangerous. Overall, the anti-vax movement reflects a lack of trust in Government words and decision-making.”

In this context, a series of embarrassing U-turns over the AstraZeneca vaccine can quickly feed fears of state corruption and incompetence. A number of social media posts have specifically targeted AstraZeneca, with some saying that French Prime Minister Jean Castex was “rotten” and “corrupt” for promoting the company’s vaccine. Indeed, a recent poll found that just 20% of the French public trusted it, compared with 80% of Britons.

For Vignaud, the ability of anti-vaxxers to damage France’s COVID-19 vaccination programme, however, is minor compared with “a delay in delivery, a wrong word from a minister, a frivolous use of the precautionary principle [a cornerstone of EU regulation emphasising caution], a disagreement between states or a manufacturing error by a particular laboratory”.

Roughly seven million people have been given a first dose so far in France – compared to more than 30 million in the UK. Some positive news is that, despite pessimistic forecasts of willingness to take the vaccine, 91% of French care home residents have been vaccinated, which compares healthily with England’s equivalent figure of around 93%. 

But some observers are not optimistic about what will happen next. Michaël Schwarzinger, a researcher at Bordeaux University Hospital and the lead author of a recent study on vaccine hesitancy in France, recently told The Atlantic: “We won’t get to herd immunity with vaccination. There’s only one alternative – and if it’s not with a vaccine, it’s by infection.” 

Perhaps Sarkozy’s sentence represents a new political culture that will more effectively scrutinise, and therefore prevent, corruption and could in the long-term lead to greater trust, including in public health campaigns. 

In any case, the damage caused by widespread political corruption allegations in France should serve as a warning to those in the UK, where allegations of impropriety in the awarding of Government contracts have left some to wonder if ministers have only their citizens’ best wishes at heart.

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