PARIS—The nation that gave us Louis Pasteur—whose scientific discoveries paved the way for human vaccination—has become a global hotspot for anti-vaxxer conspiracies and scientific distrust that experts say could allow COVID-19 to remain in France for years to come.
Almost half the country said in a recent poll it will shun the coronavirus vaccine, meaning France may not reach the herd immunity levels required to control the virus, which has already killed almost 1.5 million people around the world.
Among them is Dany d’Hulster, 56, an accountant from Aubusson, a picturesque town along the Creuse river in central France, who explained to The Daily Beast that he had grown up with vaccines that did him no harm and yet now he is “completely opposed” to the idea of a COVID-19 vaccination.
D’Hulster is one of millions who has seen the viral French documentary Hold-Up since it was released earlier this month. Featuring a slew of widely debunked claims about COVID-19—including the assertions that global elites planned the pandemic and that wearing face masks is dangerous—the 143-minute film uses classic documentary tropes of suited talking heads, slick drone footage and a dramatic musical score to evoke journalistic legitimacy.
“It was eye-opening,” says d’Hulster, who went on to repeat false claims broadcast in the documentary. “I think there was a great revolutionary movement on the way in the world and so politicians wanted us to stay home [to stop it]. There are great financial interests involved in the pandemic and they are trying to remove our rights. Without doubt [the disease] came from a laboratory.”
D’Hulster’s false beliefs are indicative of the curious challenge ahead for the home of the Enlightenment. While much of the world reacted with relief and joy to the recent announcements of highly successful COVID-19 vaccine trials by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, the French were forced to confront a deep-seated challenge: convincing the population that vaccines work. In a televised speech last week President Emmanuel Macron announced that COVID-19 vaccination will not be obligatory.
The French are more opposed to vaccines than any other country in the world. Research by Gallup last year found 33 percent of French people believed all vaccines to be dangerous—the highest level of the 144 countries surveyed. Earlier this month an Ipsos survey found that 46 percent of French adults said they will refuse any kind of COVID-19 jab—compared to 36 percent in the U.S. and 21 percent in the U.K. Even one in five French nurses are themselves dubious about vaccines.
Françoise Salvadori, who has studied anti-vaccine movements that date back to the 19th century, says it’s a phenomenon that has been in the country in an organized form for decades. The first National League for the Freedom of Vaccinations was set up in 1954 in response to the tuberculosis vaccine, Salvadori explains, but more recent controversy has bolstered the movement.
“In the 1980s, hemophilia patients were given HIV-tainted blood transfusions,” she says. “Then in the 1990s there were side-effects to Hepatitis B vaccinations after two-thirds of the population were given the jab. But the most serious recent example was the H1N1 swine flu vaccine and perceived corruption around it.”
In 2009, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy came under widespread criticism for mishandling the H1N1 vaccine rollout and allegations of collusion with pharmaceutical companies after 94 million doses were ordered and only 6 million were required. Public anger increased as it emerged the Pandemrix vaccine being used led to numerous cases of narcolepsy.
Compounding this deep seated skepticism is the gilets jaunes movement, a popular grassroots phenomenon that emerged in 2018 in response to social and economic pressures and inequalities. As a result trust in politicians is at a troubling low. Experts say there is a strong overlap between the two movements, with anti-vaccine ideas often combined with other conspiracy theories.
According to Salvadori, this has all contributed to an “enormous fall in trust” for vaccines in France. “Some of these are based on legitimate fears,” she says. “COVID has crystallized this feeling and there’s been a lot of anguish.”
Concerns about side effects shared on the internet are helping to spread the fears. Jocelyne Bouyer, a 56-year-old nursery assistant from Marcilly-En-Villette, a town around 60 miles south of Paris, claims after being vaccinated against Hepatitis B in 1994, she developed medical issues.
“I was satisfied with vaccines before but now I’m afraid of them,” says Bouyer. “I thought I was the only one to have had a side effect following a vaccine but on the internet I found thousands of testimonies of people who have been vaccinated. We now know. My doctor told me he didn’t have the time to explain.”
For the vast majority of those who receive vaccines, all produced through rigorous, standardized testing, there will be no major side effects. But digital culture experts say that France’s battle against COVID-19 has been infected by anti-vaxxers as the line between healthy skepticism like that expressed by Bouyer, and baseless conspiracy has blurred and mutated through social media into a condition all of its own.
“The audience has become a spreader of information, that’s key,” says Tristan Mendès France, a French specialist in digital cultures and conspiracy theories and collaborator with the Observatoire du Conspirationnisme. “There’s a complete deregulation of information and moderate views have less traction than extreme views on Facebook. It’s quite obvious since COVID-19 and the lockdown, the traction of conspiracy theories has exploded as many people tried to get their news on social media.”
The documentary Hold-Up, which according to Agence France Presse contains at least 30 false claims such as the baseless theory that 5G phone masts are being used to spread coronavirus, has been shared by celebrities with verified accounts like the musician Carla Bruni, who is married to former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and influencer Stomy Bugsy, who has more than a million Instagram followers.
According to research by First Draft, an international non-profit monitoring online disinformation, a single Facebook post of the entire film has been shared 49,000 times and viewed more than 2.2 million times. French newspaper Libération estimates the film has been viewed six million times in total.
Experts say the producers of Hold-Up manipulate legitimate criticisms of authorities’ response to COVID-19, pointing out inconsistencies in past advice on face masks and hydroxychloroquine, to then propagate clear falsehoods that have “spread through the global COVID-19 social media ecosystem”—from infamous Belgian conspiracist Jean Jacques Crèvecoeur to the likes of QAnon in the U.S.
“It plays with ongoing questions about the handling of the crisis,” says Bethan John, a social media journalist monitoring France for First Draft. “It’s really seductive for viewers. And the pandemic has meant that bridges have been built between lots of once disparate online spaces to create an ecosystem of misinformation. That’s why Hold-Up has been such a viral success.”
Aside from social media, high-profile figures off-line have also played a role in the spread of anti-vaccine sentiment. Didier Raoult, a professor of infectious diseases at Aix-Marseille University and figurehead of the widely debunked yet popular theory of Hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, has fanned the flames. “Looking for a COVID vaccine is an idiotic quest,” he told BFMTV in April. In an interview with Le Parisien in June, Raoult said there was “zero” chance of vaccines for emerging diseases.
The result is that Raoult, sowing illegitimate doubts about the vaccine, has become a messianic figure among the anti-vaccine movement. “Knowing that Dr Raoult’s treatment is effective, I prefer to trust him,” says Pereira Nadege, an unemployed 38-year-old from Anglet in southwestern France. “I do not support the COVID vaccine. I think it was manufactured too quickly and I doubt its content.”
Even with available and effective vaccines, the continued hesitancy towards vaccines and the fact that “herd immunity” requires around 70 percent coverage of a given population, means France may struggle to find a remedy for its anti-vaxxers.