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Why are the French so anti-vaccines and so fond of conspiracy theories?

France was recently revealed to be the country with the lowest levels of trust in vaccines around the world and it seems to tap into a wider support for conspiracy theories in France - but why are the French so mistrustful of orthodox wisdoms?

Why are the French so anti-vaccines and so fond of conspiracy theories?
Protesters gather at the Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux in 2017 to demonstrate against the extension of compulsory vaccinations for young children. Photo: AFP
A recent survey showed that a staggering 33 percent of French people do not agree that immunisation is safe, the highest figure of any country in the world. 
As a result measles, which was once considered virtually eradicated in France, has started making a marked comeback.
Naturally the government and healthcare professionals worry that this situation will only continue to get worse if the arguments against getting vaccinated continue to win over the French public. 

France has lowest level of trust in vaccines in the world, new study showsPhoto: AFP

So, why are the French so concerned about vaccinations?

It seems part of the answer could be down to a natural resistance to authority which is prevalent among the French. 
“France is the only country in the world that has made vaccines obligatory,” Francoise Salvadori, a biologist and co-author of Antivax, a history of the anti-vaccination movement in France, told The Local. 
In January 2018, France's Health Minister Agnes Buzyn increased the number of obligatory vaccinations for children to 11, something which Salavdori said may have been problematic for the French public. 
“We have never abandoned 'paternalistic medicine' despite the fact that every time more vaccines are pushed upon us, there is a greater resistance to them,” said Salvadori, who pointed out that Britain scrapped obligatory vaccinations in the 19th century. 
“But it is difficult for the government to know how to take action when not enough people are being vaccinated – and yet obliging them to do so does not seem to work either.”
Like many countries, the 'Big Pharma' conspiracy theory – the idea that the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies operate for sinister purposes and against the public good –  is prevalent in France.
On top of that in France health ministers are often doctors, and therefore seen as complicit in any dealings with the pharma industry, “stuffing their pockets and working against the public”, said Salvadori. 
The results of the recent survey could also represent a more general loss of confidence in the French state of which the anti-government 'yellow vest' protests were a sign, said Salvadori, adding that France has also seen a few incidences involving vaccinations that may have made people more skeptical over whether they, or their children, need to be vaccinated. 
Why France is increasingly concerned about the steep rise in measles casesPhoto: AFP
For example, during the 2009 flu pandemic which hit France as well as many other countries around the world, the French government initially ordered 1.46 doses of the flu vaccine per inhabitant – the third largest amount among members of the Global Health Security Initiative (GHSI) – behind the United Kingdom and Canada.
Eventually 50 million of the initial 94 million doses were cancelled, leading the public to ridicule the vaccination both because of the cost to the government and because the need for it had been exaggerated, cementing the idea that vaccinations were not necessary. 
'Victim of their own success'
Other factors which have contributed to the growing mistrust of vaccinations among the French are also significant, although they are not exclusive to France. 
For example, in countries where people are less likely to see people suffering and indeed dying from measles, there is less fear driving them to be immunised. 
“Some say vaccinations are a victim of their own success,” said Salvadori. “People in France – and other developed countries – don't see how bad it [measles] is in reality.”
There is also the problem that many expect that if they do catch measles in France, the country's renowned healthcare system will be able to cure them. 
“But measles is actually a very dangerous disease and there is no cure,” said Salvdori. 
In France in 2018, the virus killed three people: a 32-year-old unvaccinated mother, a 26-year-old suffering from an immunodeficiency and a 17-year-old girl, and since 2008 23 people in France have been killed by measles.
Comparatively there were only 519 cases of measles registered in France for the whole of 2017.
The 11 vaccines set to become compulsory in France and why French doctors are firmly in favour Photo: AFP
On the other end of the spectrum from France, the recent survey showed Bangladesh and Rwanda had the highest levels of confidence in vaccines, with almost 100 percent in both countries agreeing they were safe, effective and important for children to have.
Another problem that affects all countries is the influence of social networks with groups specialising in spreading conspiracy theories about everything from vaccinations, aliens and climate change to whether man did actually land on the moon, demonstrating considerable powers of persuasion. 
This has proved a problem for governments everywhere – and not just in terms of anti-vaccination theories. 
'Trying to explain irrationality with rationality' 
Nevertheless Salvadori said that at the moment we only really have theories about why an increasing number of people are turning their backs on vaccinations. 
“It's trying to explain irrationality with rationality,” she said. “It's hard to understand why people are being swayed by conspiracy theories around vaccinations when it's so easy to see how effective the measles vaccination has been.”
So how can France escape this growing problem?
Sadly, it looks like it will require more tragedy before people get the message, according to Salvadori. 
“We will continue to see more cases of measles and as it becomes more ubiquitous and more people die from the disease, people will get scared and start getting immunised again. It will require awful, unnecessary things to happen before the situation will turn around.”
From flat Earth to moon landings: How the French love a conspiracy theoryPhoto: AFP
Conspiracy theories
The resistance to vaccinations is reflective of a predilection for conspiracy theories among the French. 
An Ifop poll carried out on behalf of the Fondation Jean Jaures think-tank and the Conspiracy Watch organisation found that large sections of French society believed in theories with no grounding in established fact.   
One in ten French people believe the Earth may be flat and 16 percent think the US faked its moon landings, according to a new survey, which tested some of the most famous theories on a group of 1,200 people. 
However according to one expert, people who are swayed by anti-vaccination arguments are not the same people who believe in other kinds of conspiracy theories. 
“Our study showed that people who believe in anti-vaccination arguments are not usually believers of other theories, such as that the moon landings were faked,” Rudy Reichstadt from the Jean Jaures think-tank told The Local. 
“I think that people who are not usually prone to believe in conspiracies are acting out of worry when it comes to anti-vaccination theory. They are scared that if the theories are right they would be putting themselves or their children at risk.”

Member comments

  1. “France is the only country in the world that has made vaccines obligatory”
    This is clearly not true. Perhaps a misquote or misunderstanding of what Salvadori said? Further clarification would be appreciated to avoid confusion and sensationalisation.

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For members


Mutuelles: Why is French health insurance getting more expensive?

France’s top-up health insurance 'mutuelles' have been getting steadily more expensive in 2020. Here’s a look at what’s changing, why and who is the worst affected.

Mutuelles: Why is French health insurance getting more expensive?
A dentist is checking the teeth of an elderly lady in a nursing home in Paris. Photo: AFP

“The prices have never been so high in France,” said Fabien Soccio, spokesperson for the company Meilleure Assurance (Best Insurance).

His company this week revealed the results of a new study of France's private health insurance fees, mutuelles, to French media.

After comparing 55 different mutuelles health insurances, Meilleur Assurance concluded that there had been a general spike in the average cost.

What is a mutuelle?

France has generous state health care that covers a lot of medical expenses, but not all costs are reimbursed.

In France you pay upfront for your doctor's appointment, prescription or procedure and then the government reimburses the costs to you. Depending on the procedure and your situation, usually about 80-90 percent of the cost is reimbursed.

If that cost is a €25 appointment with your GP that's not such a big deal, but with more expensive treatments the costs can mount up, which is where a mutuelle comes in.

The mutuelle is a 'top-up' insurance – not obligatory, but recommended – which covers extra costs that are not covered by the state. How much a mutuelle covers will depend on the kind of insurance, where you live and the expenses in question.

If you are an employee, your employer must pay for at least half the cost of your mutuelle

Who was affected by the price increase?

The 2020 price hike touched the country as a whole, however some regions and population groups were harder hit than others, Soccio told Le Parisien.

To compare the costs for different socio-demographic groups, Meilleur Assurance created three different types of profiles; a 25-year-old employee with a “classic” mutuelle; a couple with two children, also on a “classic” mutuelle and a 60-year-old couple with “strengthened” guarantees in their mutuelle.

Seniors hardest hit

Retirees tend to go for fuller versions of mutuelles because these cover additional costs (such as dental and optical treatments). 

Seniors on extensive types of mutuelles were those suffering the steepest price increases this year, Soccio said. 

“In 2020, fifteen départements exceeded a threshold of €3,000 in annual fees for a senior couple with extra guarantees,” Soccio said.

“That’s an average increase of more than €176 in one year,” he said.

For the couple with a child, the increase was slighter ( an extra 4 percent), whereas the young employee saw health insurance bills largely unchanged.

READ ALSO Brexit: Do I need a mutuelle to get residency in France?


.. along with Parisians

The study also revealed large price differences between different regions, with inhabitants in the Paris region Ile-de-France paying the highest bills for their mutuelles.

A retired couple would pay on average €528 more if they lived in Paris compared to if they lived in a more rural, cheaper département like Mayenne.

Similarly, employees would pay 30 percent more on average in Paris than in Pays-de-la-Loire.

Parisians also saw the steepest price increases since last year, by 14.6 percent on average for the retired couple with a mutuelle covering extra costs.

On a national level, the average price increase for the same couple was 12.1 percent. 

.. but everyone was a little worse off

However the country as a whole saw a price increase last year, with even those opting for the cheapest kinds of health insurance affected by the general price hike.

In one year, from 2019 to 2020, the cheapest type of health insurance had increased by 13.7 percent, according to the study. 

Why the increase?

Prices generally increase a little every year, but this year was unusual, Soccio said.

“Today, we are in an uncertain and troubled situation,” he told Europe 1, listing several factors that had contributed to the price increase: the Covid-19 pandemic, the government's new health reform known as “100 percent Santé”, and a new health tax known as the “Covid surtax”.

When the French government presented their new budget for 2021, centred on their dazzling €100 billion relaunch plan, they promised not to increase taxes for the French. Instead, to top up their savings a little, the government introduced a new tax, the “Covid surtax”, which will be paid through the mutuelles and other health insurance companies.

This tax will provide €1 billion in total to the state in 2021, and €500 million in 2022, according to French media.

What about the future?

Soccio said he worried the trend of prices increasing would continue in the next couple of years, leading to steep prices for even those opting for the cheaper mutuelles.

“It's safe to bet that the national average costs will pass €3,000 in the next two years,” he told Le Parisien.