France struggles to convince sceptical populations that coronavirus vaccines are safe.
France is in bind. One the one hand the country believes itself to be the birthplace of European enlightenment, a place where science, reason and facts trump superstition and irrationality. But on the other hand, a significant portion of French citizens don’t believe in vaccines and immunisation programmes against deadly diseases.
A recent poll found that French people are some of the most sceptical people in the world when it comes to getting the coronavirus vaccine. Only 40 percent of respondents said that they would get the vaccine when it is made available.
It is widely believed that around 70 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order for the country to reach herd immunity.
Citizens in countries like China, Brazil and the UK have expressed some of the highest willingness to be vaccinated between 77 and 80 percent.
The low levels of citizen participation in the vaccine program could spell trouble for France. The country’s Prime Minister, Jean Castex, recently said: “My fear is that not enough French people will get vaccinated."
What lies behind the scepticism?
France’s suspicion of vaccines runs deep and is not a feature of the current pandemic.
In 2019, a survey found that only 33 percent of people in France agreed with the idea that immunisation against deadly viruses is safe.
While the French are not alone in holding such views, the dangerously low levels of confidence in doctors and modern medicine makes it an outlier.
In 2018, the country increased the number of mandatory vaccines from three to eleven amidst rising worry in the medical community that people were increasingly not vaccinating their children against disease like: whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, influenza, pneumonia and meningitis C.
The UK gave up on mandatory vaccinations in the nineteenth century after mass protests rocked the country.
Since then the UK has relied on an informed citizenry, working institutions and experts to convince people to get vaccinated.
According to Francoise Salvadori, author of ‘Anti Vax, a history of the anti-vaccination movement in France the country,’ the country is the only one in the world that legally mandated vaccines, but that hasn’t reduced scepticism, in fact, it may have done the opposite.
Emmanuel Macron’s government has said that it will attempt to convince people to voluntarily adopt the vaccine rather than mandating the vaccine. The government fears that such a move could spark unrest in the country which has already been host to widespread anti-Covid lockdown protests.
Even as countries are racing to vaccinate their citizens, to date, France has managed less than 600 vaccines, despite the thousands of doses being delivered.
Germany in comparison has vaccinated almost 300,000 people and the UK almost one million.
The fear in Paris may well be that if the country doesn’t step up its vaccination programme it could find itself locked out from the rest of the European Union, as countries might move to close their borders in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.
There is a precedent for this when EU countries closed their border to each other in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. As the vaccination programme in the rest of the EU gathers pace that could leave France as a laggard.
The granting of ‘immunity passports’ - which has been floated for some time as one path towards easing down lockdown rules - could well see French citizens only being allowed to enter other EU countries if they are carrying proof that they were immunised.
French government efforts to persuade their population to accept vaccines will have to overcome entrenched views.
Are facts enough?
Researchers looking at how disinformation and conspiracy theories spread have found them to be linked with people’s wider view of the world, rather than just their view on a particular vaccine.
“Conspiracy beliefs...reinforce the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. By questioning the official explanation, minority groups—and not just majority groups—could potentially reinforce differences between groups,” said one research paper.
Earlier this year a French pseudoscience conspiracy film called, Hold Up, was widely circulated on social media. The film claimed that the coranvirus was part of an “authoritarian health ideology" which wants "to force...surveillance and submission,” onto the world.
The film's popularity in France meant that government ministers had to condemn it, likely expanding the film’s reach.
Another study found that a “conspiracy mentality” was generally “associated with disliking and feeling threatened by powerful groups.”
Scepticism of the wider coronavirus pandemic in France is a symptom of broad distrust towards large multinational firms and the role of big government.
A survey in 2019 which focused on the prevalence of conspiracy theories in France found that 17 percent of people believed that the country’s Ministry of Health was in “cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry to hide from the general public the reality of the harmfulness of vaccines."
Another poll also found a significant portion of the population held a wide ranging cocktail of conspiratorial views. Almost one in ten people in France, for instance, believe in the flat earth idea, whereas more believe that the US moon landing was faked.
Against such a backdrop of conspiracy theories France may have no choice but to make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory or risk yet economic and social damage.