6 reasons France’s Covid vaccination programme improved so dramatically

6 reasons France's Covid vaccination programme improved so dramatically
French PM Jean Castex getting his Covid vaccine in front of the cameras. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP
As France hits the milestone of giving first doses of the Covid vaccine to 50 million people, here's how the country dragged itself up from the bottom of the class to being among the world's best on vaccination rates.

It was two weeks later than the target, but on Saturday France announced that it had hit the milestone of giving at least one dose of the Covid vaccine to 50 million people – out of a total population of 67 million, roughly 57 million of whom are aged 12 and over and therefore eligible to be vaccinated.

On Saturday, 50,049,150 people had received a first dose and 47,538,919 were fully vaccinated. Around 90 percent of adults in the country are now at least partially vaccinated.

France now has one of the higher vaccination rates in Europe and has drawn ahead of both the UK and the USA in vaccinating its population. Of the G7 nations France is second, just behind Canada.

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French data is helped by the vaccination programme for under 18s, which began in June.

So what are the reasons behind the dramatic turnaround since January and February, when France was widely mocked for its low vaccination rates?

1. It was maybe never as bad as we thought

The French vaccine rollout undoubtedly got off to a painfully slow start, but the early statistic that grabbed most media attention related to something that hadn’t actually happened yet.

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.

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 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

The early part of the vaccine rollout – targeted at the elderly and the vulnerable – was marked by long waits and unanswered phones, but by the time younger people became eligible for the vaccine in April and May, there were some simple and efficient technical solutions available for booking.
People were able to book directly, with no need to wait for an invitation from their doctor and the government was smart enough not to try and build its own systems.
Instead it partnered with websites and apps already widely in use, such as the medical app Doctolib, and incorporated the creations of the brilliant French data scientist Guillaume Rozier who created Vite Ma Dose! (quickly, my dose) and Chronodoses to enable people to find vaccine appointments near them.
Rozier, 25, was later honoured as a Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite by the government for his work during the pandemic.

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.

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.

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.

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, more than 13 million people have been vaccinated since the president’s announcement in the middle of July. 

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.

They might love to hate him, but it seems like Macron knows the French pretty well. 


Member comments

  1. My wife and I were vaccinated in Nîmes last March 2021. At tte time, we had only numéros Securité Sociale provisoire so we used those preliminary numbers when we were vaccinated. We have since received our numéros définitives. We received our vaccination certificates, but it was before QR codes were used. How can we now update our certificates to add a QR code and then apply for our passes sanitaire? I have been unsuccessful in my attempts using our numéros définitives because I have assumed that our numéros provisoires expired when our numéros définitives were issued. Any and all advice would be helpful and most appreciated. Thank you.

  2. Richard in North Carolina–It took about ten days (I submitted paperwork on Aug. 10), but I got back the qr code as promised; it was easy to upload into the app, and I am heading to Paris tonight! I did get an immediate bounceback email stating that they had received my email and not to email again. If you didn’t get this immediate email, I suggest just making sure that you sent your stuff to the correct email address. Otherwise, I’d say hang in there, good luck, and hope you have a great trip!

  3. we are coming to France Sept 15th for a month in Aix en.
    I have sent our request in for the Health Passport to the .govfr site.
    With all the paper work I HOPE included.

    One thing I would request is that an acknowledgement or recipt be sent back to the Sender mainly for piece of mind.
    If someone with the power could pass this on to gov.
    Richard in North Carolina

  4. Unfortunately have lost a couple of friends, not to covid but French intransigence! I used to think the Brits were ‘bloody minded ‘ but the resistance of ‘if the government says I have to, I won’t ‘ is reminiscent of a five year old.

  5. I’m not in the slightest bit interested in nationalism and I don’t think this should be a “better than them” debate at any stage, but I am interested in accuracy. The article starts “France on Tuesday reported that it had fully vaccinated 42 million people… adding up to more than 60 percent of its total population fully vaccinated”. Using the same official UK figures for yesterday as John Lichfield’s tweet (ie total second dose as of 23 Aug in UK is 41,942,036) this is 77.2% of 16+ double vaccinated. France’s 60% has not overtaken 77.2%. I detest the jingoism of much UK media but please just get The Local’s reporting correct.

    1. You point out this is 60% compared to 77.2%. But how can that be, that the absolute number of vaccinations in France is higher but the proportion is far lower, given the total population is similar?

      You aren’t comparing like with like. The French 60% number is based upon total population, but the UK 77.2% is based upon people aged 16+.

      The data in France for people aged 12+ is currently 71.6%, higher than the 60% and closer to the UK’s 77%. But still the proportion is lower. But again, we are comparing a 12+ statistic against a 16+ statistic, so the proportion comparison is not valid.

      In the end, the absolute number is higher in France, and that statistic is telling us that the vaccination in France is not too bad after all.

      1. Thanks very much for the clarification, that would erxplain it. I did look at the double John Lichfield tweet but he didn’t mention any age limits.

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