Will Macron have to make the Covid-19 vaccine compulsory? Credit: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP via Getty Images

November 16, 2020   7 mins

Here is a pretty conundrum. France, cradle of the enlightenment and birthplace of Cartesian logic, is also a snake-pit of conspiracy theories. French “touch-and-see” rationalism and French “it’s-all-a giant-fiddle” scepticism sometimes align. They can also collide. And nowhere is this more true than for vaccinations. France, the home of Louis Pasteur, of Pierre and Marie Curie, is more opposed to them than any other country in the world.

The news of the Pfizer and BioNTech breakthrough in the development of a vaccine against Covid-19 was greeted across the world with cautious relief and delight. In France, there was some delight — but also suspicion and even anger. International research by Gallup last year reported that one in three French people believed all vaccines to be dangerous — the highest percentage of the 144 countries surveyed. This week, an Ipsos survey suggested that 46% of French adults will refuse — or say they will refuse — the Pfizer jab or any other kind of anti-Covid jab. (Compared to 36% in the United States, 30% in Germany, 21% in Britain and 16% in India.)

Strangely, opposition appears to have increased as the vaccine looked more likely to appear. An Ipsos survey in September found that 41% of French adults would refuse any Covid jab. With “herd immunity” estimated to require 60 to 70% coverage of a given population, the pandemic appears to have a long and prosperous future in France.

Anti-vax feeling has been spreading throughout the developed word in recent years (much less so in poorer countries, which know a thing or two about infectious diseases). But why should the opposition be so powerful in France? Are the survey figures reliable?

Laurent-Henri Vignaud, a French historian who has studied the rise and fall of anti-vax movements, is sceptical. It’s not always a good idea, he suggests, to take the French public at its word — and certainly not on this subject. “The only other countries broadly as anti-vaccine as the French are the Russians and the Mongolians,” he says. “Countries where government is widely held in disrepute. What we are looking at here, I think, is a transfer of suspicion. For many years 30-40% of the French have been vastly sceptical of all politicians and all media.”

He concludes that, “this deep pessimism has spilled over to the question of vaccines”. Wide-scale rejection of mainstream politics exists in other countries, but takes an especially acute form in France, where the traditional centre-Left/centre-Right pattern of politics has all but collapsed. The poor performance of recent governments offers a partial explanation. But France’s aggressively suspicious attitude towards authority is not a new phenomenon.

As he describes it, there is a core of people who are viscerally anti-vax, “people who use arguments on natural health or because they believe conspiracy theories of the far-Right or the far-Left”. But there is another group, he says, who are simply sceptical or negative about whatever the government proposes. “But I doubt they will all refuse in the end to take a Covid vaccine?” he says.

Lucie Guimier, a public health expert who has studied French anti-vax movements, also makes an important distinction — between hard-core anti-vaxxers and those with legitimate doubts about a new form of vaccine created in such a short time. She told France 24: “Usually it takes 10 years to develop a vaccine. Some doubts are perfectly justified … Many people remember the hasty campaign of vaccination against the H1N1 virus in the winter of 2009-10. France suffered 60 cases of narcolepsy. Obviously that stays in people’s minds.”

There is another factor which has enflamed and muddled pro and anti-vax arguments in France since the beginning of the Covid pandemic: the Raoult factor.

Professor Didier Raoult, the Professor Dumbledore of Marseille, is an internationally recognised expert in infectious diseases and progenitor of the widely-debunked, but far from dead, Hydroxychloroquine craze. He has become a secular saint for many “anti-system” people in France, both on the hard-Left and the hard-Right. Their adoration is immune to the Professor’s appalling track record in predicting the course of the pandemic.

Raoult wrote a book in 2018 which argues that some vaccines are useful and even essential — but not all. In other words, he is not an anti-vaxxer but in recent months he has often sounded like one. “Looking for a Covid vaccine is an idiotic quest,” he told BFMTV in April. “The chances of a vaccine against a newly emerging illness becoming a useful tool of public health are close to zero…”

In another interview with Le Parisien in June — before a second wave of the pandemic began to swell in France — Raoult said the virus had mutated into something relatively innocuous. “For daring to say such things,” he added, “I will be targeted by the laboratories which are working on vaccines.”

Whether intentionally or not, such comments feed the conspiracy theories that teem on French-language Facebook and Twitter. More than 1,100,000 people follow 90 different French-language Facebook dedicated to Professor Raoult. There is a growing overlap between such groups and the most virulent anti-vax movements. The Jean Jaurès foundation reported in July that 89% of Raoult supporters on Facebook accept the proposition that “the ministry of health is in league with the pharmaceutical industry to hide from the general public the noxious effects of vaccines”.

Anti-vaxxers in other countries tend mostly to be people who believe in natural or holistic medicine or have swallowed the discredited allegations of people, such as the struck-off British doctor Andrew Wakefield, that vaccines have generated a boom in autism or other so-called “modern” diseases. In France, opponents on health grounds intersect with, and are supplemented by, large bodies of people on the far-Left and far-Right who believe that vaccines are a capitalist conspiracy between government and industry (Big Pharma) or part of a giant plot to subjugate the population to group-think (Big Brother).

Sub-groups of both movements argue that modern vaccines are actually just a form of medical Trojan Horse. The whole pandemic is a hoax, they say. It will permit a mass programme of vaccinations that will place electronic micro-chips under our skin to control us for either Profit or Power — or both. Professor Raoult’s genius is to somehow appeal to all these groups (while not actually being anti-vax).

Typical comments found online in recent days include: “I’d rather die than inject myself with this filth,” “My health is not for sale,” and “This is all a government plot.” Longer comments include: “Wake up! Vaccines are poisons. It’s through vaccination that people die, become sick, autistic, handicapped. Get with the programme.” And: “I’d rather kick the bucket than give my genetic code to all these businesses. That’s what’s happening here. They want to put us all into a genetic filing system.”

This anti-political, anti-state virus predates the internet but thrives online. A good comparison is the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement, which began two years ago with authentic grievances and rapidly splintered through competing Facebook groups into weird and inoperable conspiracy theories.

In recent days, many of the most outlandish French Covid theories have been spliced together in an 143 minute online documentary film, Hold-up, which, according to the news agency Agence France Presse, contains 30 inventions or distortions.

Laurence-Henri Vignaud, who has studied anti-vax movements in France and elsewhere that date back to 19th century, points to the unwitting emergence of the Microsoft founder Bill Gates as a kind of Raoult-in-reverse: a man who unites in baseless hatred all the strands of anti-vaxdom in France. Because of his charitable foundation’s drive to provide vaccines to the developing world, Gates has become “both the capitalist who sells useless vaccines and the geek who wants to put microchips under your skin”. “For the anti-vaxxers Bill Gates is wonderful,” Mr Vignaud said. “He combines Big Brother and Big Pharma in one person.”

All the same, Vignaud is convinced that if the Pfizer or other vaccines prove safe and effective, a large percentage of the French population will ultimately allow itself to be jabbed. He points to the fact that since 2018, vaccination of children against 11 diseases has been compulsory in France. Very few parents have broken the law and refused to have their kids treated.

That raises another question: should vaccination against Covid-19 be compulsory in France, not just for children but for adults? It’s a measure that has never been taken before, for any disease. Some in the United States suggest that vaccination should be compulsory for key workers, especially in the health sector. The British Government says that compulsory vaccination for all has not been ruled out.

This week the French health advisory body, the Haute Autorité de Santé, began a consultation exercise on this subject. The authority said that in its own “provisional” opinion,” compulsory vaccination was unjustified. The French Government therefore faces a potentially hazardous decision. Would compulsory jabs feed the online paranoia and strengthen anti-vaccine feeling in France? Or would it — like the 2018 law making some vaccines compulsory — sort out the hard-core opposition (small) from the permanent grumblers (many)?

Even compulsory vaccination of medical staff might meet resistance. Martin Hirsch, head of the Paris hospital service, points out that something like one in five French nurses has declared themselves to be dubious about vaccines. “When anti-vaccine arguments are starting to stick even amongst nurses, you know that these conspiracy theories have gone much too far,” he told France Info radio. “The anti-vaxxers have done great harm to public health in this country, including within the hospital service.”

There is, I believe, a greater problem — and one for which no vaccine is possible. France’s epidemic of doubt in politicians and institutions is sometimes justified but often spirals into wilful negativity — a kind of cynical credulity — which is prepared to believe the worst against all evidence. As Mr Vignaud points out, there is a widespread but not universal belief in France that politicians and/or capitalist enterprises are fundamentally corrupt and work against the interests of ordinary people.

This is not confined to France — although in the developed world, only the United States is worse afflicted. But France is different from the US, in that the French can distrust the state in the comfortable knowledge that they can rely on it for protection (as French people have done during the Covid crisis, despite some blunders).

Laurent-Henri Vignaud is probably right: when faced with something as tangible as a deadly new disease, much of the instinctive French scepticism will fade away. The marginal doubters — some of whom have perfectly reasonable questions about a new vaccine — will be separated from a hardcore of health and political obsessives. Most French people will, in the end, queue for their anti-Covid jabs.

And yet France’s epidemic, or endemic state, of obsessive national pessimism will survive. The threat to the country’s political health may be more disturbing than the anti-vax threat to its physical health.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.