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HEALTH

Why vaccine-sceptic France is so wary about mass immunisation for Covid-19

France was once home to the father of immunisation, Louis Pasteur, but it is now among the most vaccine-sceptic nations on Earth - a pressing concern as it prepares one of the biggest vaccination campaigns in its history.

Why vaccine-sceptic France is so wary about mass immunisation for Covid-19
Protesters hold a banner reading "Mask + vaccines + nanoparticules + 5G" as they take part in a demonstration called by the 'yellow vest' movement in Bordeaux, southwestern France on September 12th, 2

Britain's announcement on Wednesday that it was approving a Covid-19 vaccine for general use piled pressure on other countries to shield their citizens from a virus that has killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide.

French President Emmanuel Macron had already said he was aiming to begin inoculating those most exposed to the virus in early 2021, followed by a second phase targeting the wider public between April and June.

But he faces a tough task to persuade enough people to get the jabs to achieve herd immunity – the threshold at which the entire population is protected from the virus.

READ ALSO: France prepares 5-stage plan for Covid-19 vaccination campaign

Risks 'exaggerated'

A survey in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper at the weekend showed only 41 percent of the French planned to get inoculated, compared with the 58 percent recorded in a recent Gallup poll in the US, where coronavirus and vaccine scepticism is also high.

Macron rejected a call from Greens leader Yannick Jadot to make the jab compulsory, saying he hoped to win over people with “conviction” and “transparency” instead.

Richard Lamette, a 65-year-old Paris-based plumber, told AFP he had no plans to get the Covid shot “until it has been well tested on the population”.

READ ALSO: Why France is considering making the vaccine compulsory

Remarking that several of his admittedly younger colleagues had contracted the virus but recovered within 10 days, he said he felt that the dangers had been “a bit exaggerated”.

“Other diseases kill far more people, like cancer and cigarettes and they don't make as much of a fuss about them,” he argued.

“My body my choice”. Protesters Bordeaux, southwestern France, on October 15th, 2017, demonstrate against the extension of compulsory vaccinations for young children. Photo: AFP

'Yellow vest' influence

Long reputed as a nation of pill-poppers with one of the world's highest rates of use of antibiotics and antidepressants, the French have in recent years grown increasingly suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry.

The anticapitalist “yellow vest” protest movement that erupted in opposition to fuel taxes in late 2018 amplified conspiracy theories about the government being beholden to drug companies – theories that were fuelled by the increase in the number of compulsory jabs for children from three to 11 in 2018.

A Gallup survey of 140,000 people in 44 countries showed the French to be the most vaccine-sceptical in the world, with one in three saying they did not believe vaccines to be safe.

The Journal du Dimanche poll showed the scepticism strongest among supporters of far-right and far-left political parties.

Health experts say public trust in inoculations began to erode after a 1980s scandal when hundreds of haemophiliacs were infected with HIV after receiving tainted transfusions.

Revelations in 2009 that a popular slimming drug Mediator caused serious heart damage and may have killed over 2,000 people further deepened the suspicion of drug companies.

“Find a vaccine quickly for the patronavirus,” reads the placard, which plays on the words 'patron' (boss) and 'coronavirus', during a yellow vest protest in Marseille, southern France, on May 1st, 2020, Photo: AFP

Swine flu fiasco

Many French people also frown on mass vaccination campaigns after a drive in 2009 against swine flu ended with the state incinerating millions of superfluous jabs, costing hundreds of millions of euros.

For Jocelyn Raude, a professor at the EHESP School of Public Health in Rennes, the swine flu affair marked a shift in public opinion.

A number of doctors and pharmacists led by surgeon Henri Joyeux, based in the southern city of Montpellier, began to beat the anti-vaccine drum.

Joyeux, who has 175,000 followers on Facebook, “gave the (anti-vaccine) movement credibility”, Raude said.

On his website the doctor likens the race for a Covid jab to the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.

Geographer Lucie Guimier, who did her thesis on the anti-vaccine movement, noted it was strongest in  Marseille, home of Didier Raoult, the professor who touted the anti-malaria drug chloroquine as a cure for coronavirus

“The idea has taken root that it's a rebel city against the central state. It's quite dangerous in terms of public health,” she said.

Marseille deputy mayor Samia Ghali is among the sceptics.

Accusing the government of bungling its response to the coronavirus pandemic Ghali told BFMTV in September she did not “want to serve as a guinea pig” for a Covid-19 shot.

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POLITICS

‘Public opinion is ready’ – These French senators want to legalise marijuana

A group of 31 French senators of the Socialist, Green and Republican parties have come together to write a statement calling for the legalisation of marijuana in France.

'Public opinion is ready' - These French senators want to legalise marijuana

France is known for having some of the strictest laws regarding marijuana consumption in Europe – while simultaneously maintaining one of the highest rates of cannabis usage in the EU. 

A group of French senators – coming from the Socialist, Green and centre-right Les Républicains parties – are trying to change those laws, and have come together to call for marijuana to be legalised in France.

The group of 31 co-signed a statement published in French newspaper, Le Monde, on Wednesday, August 10th.

In the statement, the senators promised to launch a ‘consultation process’ to submit a bill to legalise marijuana “in the coming months.”

The proposition was headed by Senator Gilbert-Luc Devinaz, a member of the Socialist Party, and gained support from the party’s leader, Patrick Kanner.

READ MORE: The long and winding road towards changing France’s cannabis laws

A report by the Assemblé Nationale, which was published in May 2021, estimated that nearly 18 million French people (more than 25 percent of the population) had already consumed marijuana, and that an additional 1.5 million consume it regularly.

This, coupled with the 2019 finding that nearly one in two French people (45 percent) said they were in favour of legalisation, according to a survey by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT), helped strengthen the senators’ position.

“Public opinion is ready, the legislature must act,” they wrote.

Their senators argue that legalising marijuana in France will allow the authorities to better protect French citizens, saying that legalising would not require “minimising the health impacts of cannabis consumption” but rather would allow regulation similar to “public policies for tobacco, alcohol or gambling.”

For the group of 31 senators, the benefits of legalisation would involve a better control over the “health quality of products consumed,” “curbing trafficking in disadvantaged areas,” developing large-scale prevention plans,” and finally the taxation of cannabis products and redirection of law enforcement resources. Decriminalisation – in their opinion – would not be sufficient as this would simply “deprive authorities the ability to act,” in contrast to legalisation. 

READ MORE: Is France moving towards legalising cannabis for recreational purposes?

“In the long term, new tax revenues would be generated from the cannabis trade and from savings in the justice and police sectors”, which would make it possible to mobilize “significant resources for prevention as well as for rehabilitation and economic development,” wrote the senators.

In France, the conversation around cannabis has evolved in recent years – former Health Minister (and current government spokesman) Olivier Véran said to France Bleu in September 2021 that “countries that have gone towards legalisation have results better than those of France in the last ten years,” adding that he was interested in the potential therapeutic use of cannabis.

Currently, the drug is illegal in France. Previously, it fell under a 1970-law of illicit drug use, making it punishable with up to a year prison and an up to €3,750 fine.

However, in 2020, the government softened the penalties, making it possible for those caught consuming it to opt for an on-the-spot fine of €200.

There is also an ongoing trial involving 3,000 patients to test the impacts of medical marijuana usage, particularly with regard to pain relief. 

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