France’s anti-vaxxers show deepening distrust of elites

The writer is a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Back in November, when BioNTech and Pzifer unveiled a Covid-19 vaccine with more than 90 per cent efficacy, the news was welcomed internationally. In the country of vaccination pioneer Louis Pasteur, however, distrust ran high from day one. According to recent polls, only 40 per cent of French people say they will get vaccinated. By comparison, UK polls show the proportion of Brits willing to take the vaccine stands at 77 per cent.

This scepticism has affected the French fight against the virus. The nation has so far vaccinated only a few hundred people, and health minister Olivier Véran has been accused of pandering to anti-vaxxers after saying the government needed to be “educational” in its approach.

But France’s hesitancy towards vaccines predates Covid-19. A 2019 Gallup poll conducted in 144 countries showed it was already home to some of the strongest anti-vaccine sentiment in the world. The pandemic has only reinforced this and enabled the nation’s online anti-vax communities to be more successful in wooing the “vaccine hesitant” than its health authorities.

French rejection of vaccination reflects a years-long erosion of trust in both political and medical elites.

Distrust of medical institutions has been fuelled by a series of high-profile scandals, from the contaminated blood cases of the 1990s to the more recent trial over Mediator diabetes pill deaths. In 2009, controversies surrounding trials for the H1N1 flu vaccine, including concerns over conflicts of interest between experts and pharmaceutical groups, also damaged French faith in medical authorities.

Political trust meanwhile continues to be undermined by anti-establishment groups. The yellow vest movement, which has enjoyed a revival during the pandemic, now talks less about tax and inequalities and more about the government using virus fears to cow its citizens. Indeed, research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has found that online disinformation about Covid-19 in France primarily takes the form of these conspiracy theories — and the anti-establishment movement has become a major propagator of disinformation about vaccination.

In November, Hold-Up — a crowdfunded documentary exploring conspiracy theories about the pandemic — was watched by millions of French people within a week of its release. It attacked vaccines, “big pharma”, medical institutions at home and abroad and tapped into existing popular grievances towards the Paris government.

While this combination of online disinformation and distrust of elites may not be specific to France, the depth and longevity of feeling would appear to be.

Successive governments’ unpopularity — the last two presidents did not secure re-election — had already dented trust in politics. Perceived contradictory messages during the pandemic harmed trust more. Ministers said generalised mask-wearing was “useless” only weeks before masks were made compulsory on city streets. While the messaging adapted quickly to medical advice, the inconsistency has had an impact.

As suspicion of medical institutions has grown, so have contrarian figures in the medical world emerged, depicted as underdogs fighting a corrupt system. Didier Raoult, the Marseille doctor who achieved notoriety after becoming a proponent of the use of chloroquine to treat Covid-19, has become a rallying figure for online anti-vax groups and gained support from the yellow vests. Pro-Raoult Facebook groups have been among the most active in discussing the pandemic during the second wave.

The French government’s vow to speed up vaccination may therefore depend on rebuilding trust in its politicians and medical experts. It needs to ensure people receive fact-based information — and it needs to compete with online anti-vax content.

Faced with mounting pressure, tech companies including Facebook and TikTok are taking steps to remove the most harmful anti-vaccine disinformation from their platforms. But anti-vax communities, in France as elsewhere, have been allowed to build their audience on social media for years.

Anti-vaccine groups intersect with other online communities, making them hard to dislodge. Retroactively removing harmful anti-vax content, while necessary, can also be fraught with difficulties. That means the French government needs to continue putting pressure on tech companies to remove disinformation and highlight the official advice, while also providing more decisive messaging of its own. In short, the politicians need to be as convincing as the conspiracy theorists they battle.

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