When the first Covid vaccine was administered in France on December 27th 2020, the government was already facing criticism for a slow start, and things would only get worse as just a few hundred people were vaccinated in the first few weeks and France was widely mocked for its sluggish vaccination programme.
One year on, however, and France has among the best vaccination rates in the world.
So how did this turnaround happen?
1. It was maybe never as bad as we thought
Back in January, 60 percent of French people told pollsters that they might not get the vaccine (the highest rate of all the countries polled) prompting widespread panic about the high level of vaccine resistance in France.
France is now the most vaccinated of the countries with nukes. Which is probably not what I'd have bet on in January given this YouGov polling. pic.twitter.com/zVOa9M7enQ
— Tom Forth (@thomasforth) August 24, 2021
As we can now see, most of those people went on to get vaccinated, so maybe there was never any need to panic.
But two things stand out from this – firstly the wording of the question.
French people were asked ‘will you definitely get vaccinated’ and many said no. But they also weren’t saying that they definitely wouldn’t. Many people just said they would maybe wait for a bit and see how it went – a very different thing to the small percentage of committed anti-vaxxers.
The second is that all French polls should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The French enjoy a good grumble and there’s nothing to suggest that they don’t exercise this tendency when talking to pollsters – French presidents consistently get terrible poll ratings and the French are generally at the bottom of any international comparisons on happiness or contentment. It’s what British commentator Tom Forth refers to as ‘performative miserablism’.
2. The slow start might actually have been a good thing
Apart from early issues with the EU vaccine procurement programme, there were problems particular to France such as an overly complicated protocol for vaccinations in nursing homes and a convoluted supply chain that meant vaccines spent many days in transit or in French warehouses.
Some aspects of the slow start were deliberate, with the government choosing to use early supplies to vaccinate the most vulnerable – such as the severely ill or care home residents – rather than starting a mass rollout to health workers, a strategy that they said saved more lives in the most vulnerable people.
However the scarcity of vaccine appointments in the early days may have had an unintended reverse psychology effect, with numerous jokes doing the rounds that the only way to make French people want something is to tell them that they can’t have it.
3. The EU got its act together and Pfizer smashed all production targets
While supply was an issue at the beginning of the vaccination programme, by late spring vaccine doses were flooding in, largely thanks to Pfizer which had managed to provide even more doses than it had promised (in stark contrast to AstraZeneca).
The vast majority of vaccines administered in France have been Pfizer, as the graph below from the Covidtracker.fr team shows.
After initially struggling, the EU’s procurement programme also improved dramatically so that it managed to supply all the doses that its member states needed while also exporting 200 million vaccine doses produced in the Bloc to other countries.
This coincided with France opening large ‘vaccinedromes’ including at the Stade de France and Disneyland Paris, where tens of thousands of people could be vaccinated per week.
4. French tech was genuinely good
5. Communication was a priority
Perhaps spooked by those early polls on vaccine hesitancy, the government worked hard on the challenge of persuading people to be vaccinated.
Big fan of the French vaccine ad 💉🇫🇷
— Richard Chambers (@newschambers) June 12, 2021
Whether it was health minister Olivier Véran posing partially topless (oh là là) or a series of smart, sharply targeted and occasionally saucy adverts, the government accepted from the beginning that its job was not simply to provide vaccines, but to persuade people to take them.
🇨🇵 government promotes Covid vaccine by heavily implying that it will get you laid 🤣 pic.twitter.com/6CG7tOohOd
— Emma Pearson (@LocalFR_Emma) July 2, 2021
6. And the health passport
But by far the biggest single impact on vaccination rates was president Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of the health passport, the impact of which can be seen in the below graph of vaccine appointments being booked immediately after his speech on July 12th.
261 000 personnes ont pris rendez-vous pour se faire vacciner, hier (2 semaines après l’allocution d’E. Macron), sur Doctolib. Moins que le lundi précédent (325 000), mais toujours davantage que fin juin/début juillet. #Covid19 pic.twitter.com/QjJ424rXbC
— Nicolas Berrod (@nicolasberrod) July 27, 2021
The idea of showing proof of vaccination (or a test or Covid recovery certificate) to enter a bar, cinema or hospital has been controversial, but while 250,000 people took to the streets to protest, millions more went and got vaccinated.
A similar effect could be seen on the uptake of doses of the booster shot when Macron announced that health passes will begin to be deactivated for people who are eligible for the booster but have not had it.
It lead to another round of French jokes, the gist of which were that when you tell the French they might die of a deadly virus they shrug, but when you tell them they can’t go to a restaurant, they queue up to get vaccinated.
Les français :
-Tu risques de crever
-Tu pourras plus aller au bistrot
-Ok la fesse ou l’épaule ? https://t.co/KQZWSsoRDk
— Pingoo (@Pingoopathe) July 12, 2021
They might love to hate him, but it seems like Macron knows the French pretty well.