French scepticism over vaccines reflects distrust of government

France is more sceptical about vaccine safety than any other nation, research suggests. A third of French people disagree that vaccines are safe, according to the Wellcome Global Monitor survey.

This scepticism over vaccinations reflects the public’s comparatively high distrust of politicians, say experts on France’s anti-vaccine movement. The Wellcome study found France had among the highest levels of distrust of government.

Laurent-Henri Vignaud, a historian at the University of Burgundy and co-author of Antivax, a recent history of anti-vaccine sentiment in France, said there was “no structural reason” that vaccine hesitancy was higher than in neighbouring countries, but mistrust of politicians and criticism of the state increased the sentiment.

“The anti-vaccine movement in France is a more recent development than the anti-vaccine movement in England. The small movement in France, which makes a big noise online, isn’t stronger than elsewhere. But France does have one specificity, which is its almost pathological relationship with the state. French people expect so much of our state and so they are also very critical of it,” Vignaud said.

Until the start of the 2000s around 90% of French people were pro-vaccine, but then scandals involving drug companies shook public confidence. A turning point came in 2009 when the French government ordered huge quantities of vaccine against the swine flu epidemic. Less than 10% of people took up the offer to get the vaccine amid fears of side-effects. The government was seen as having massively over-ordered with public funds, raising questions about financial interests.

“In our recent history, the H1N1 [swine flu] was the moment when doubt settled into the general population. It went beyond the small circles of anti-vaccine campaigners,” Vignaud said.

Already, earlier scandals had taken a toll. In the mid-1980s haemophilia patients were given HIV-tainted blood transfusions, and questions were raised as to how much the state had known. Then came a row over hepatitis B vaccinations: between 1994 and 1998 almost two-thirds of the French population and almost all newborn babies were vaccinated against hepatitis B, but the programme was suspended after concerns arose about possible side-effects.

In 2015 an online petition against aluminium in vaccines gained 1 million signatures.

Faced with low vaccination rates, the government took action last year, adding eight more vaccines to the list of three that were already compulsory for a child to enter childcare and school. The public health body said there had been a high take-up this year, with “91% of parents recognising the importance of vaccinations for their children”.

Vignaud said that when the gilets jaunes anti-government protest movement started in November 2018 and held a consultation over what demands to make, some contributors suggested an end to compulsory vaccinations for children. The demand never made it to the final charter.

Although Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally has occasionally on TV debate shows questioned the long-term safety of vaccines, the party has not pushed it as a key issue and is instead seen as opportunistically getting onboard when vaccines became a public issue.

During the recent European election campaign, the French Green party, EELV, was repeatedly questioned over whether it had an anti-vaccination stance. The party’s deputy leader, Michèle Rivasi, who would be re-elected to the European parliament, issued a statement denying she was an anti-vaxxer.

Rivasi said she had “committed a regrettable mistake” when at the start of 2017 she had extended an invitation to Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who was struck off for his discredited paper linking the MMR jab to autism. She said she had merely sought “transparency” on medical issues. The Greens’ leader, Yannick Jadot, said the party was firmly “pro-vaccination”.

Jacques Bessin, a former shop owner in Normandy who refused to vaccinate both his children, now 19 and 16, said hesitancy over vaccinations in France reflected “the feeling that politicians can’t be trusted”.

He said: “For years politicians have not taken proper responsibility. There’s a type of medical dictatorship where politicians tell us: ‘Do as you’re told, don’t argue.’ Yet people are reading more now, they are online, they take an interest, they don’t believe everything they are told.”

Bessin, who fought a five-year legal battle after refusing to vaccinate one of his children in 2001, now runs an association that provides legal advice to other families who are hesitant to vaccinate.

He said: “We’re not anti-vaccinations, we want the possibility to make our own choice over vaccinations. We want the state to clearly inform us of the risks involved.”