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France Has 1 Of The Highest Rates Of Vaccine Skepticism

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's not just the U.S. trying to manage concerns from vaccine skeptics, it's long been a problem in France. The French government has proceeded cautiously in its COVID vaccination rollout in an effort to try to get everyone on board. But the slow pace is now getting a lot of criticism. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Even before the pandemic, disinformation from the anti-vaxxer movement was rampant in France. In 2018, with measles cases on the rise, the government made 11 childhood vaccines mandatory. Marie (ph) is a member of a Facebook group started three years ago to counter the falsehoods.

MARIE: We were upset by anti-vaxxer theories and decided to fight them on social medias.

BEARDSLEY: Marie does not want to use her full name because members of her group, Les Vaxxers, have received death threats. She says anti-vaxxers believe the measles vaccine can cause autism. But it's something else for the COVID vaccine.

MARIE: They think this vaccine could modify their genes. And maybe they will be remote controlled.

BEARDSLEY: Despite 70,000 COVID deaths in France, nearly half the population says it doesn't want the vaccine. Antoine Bristielle, a researcher at Sciences Po university, says even before the pandemic, there were many French people who believed in conspiracy theories about the government and pharmaceutical companies.

ANTOINE BRISTIELLE: That financial interests were the reasons why the government promoted vaccines. Before the pandemic, one side of the population believed that.

BEARDSLEY: Since the pandemic, Bristielle says, membership in anti-vaxxer Facebook and YouTube channels has increased dramatically. But he says mainstream media has fed doubts as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Sud Radio is a small-talk radio with a populist tone. A recent guest was Professor Christian Perronne, an infectious disease specialist known for his alternative theories. Perronne is cited extensively in a 2 1/2-hour, French, online conspiracy documentary that claims COVID was fabricated by governments and elites. It's been downloaded more than 6 million times. On the radio show, Perronne said that COVID vaccines were developed far too fast and for a disease, he said, is only killing a tiny percentage of the population.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIAN PERRONNE: (Through interpreter) Maybe they are effective. But we need years to know. We haven't seen any study results. But we have sure seen the stocks of these companies soar.

BEARDSLEY: Unlike hardcore, long-term anti-vaxxers, those suspicious of the COVID vaccine can be convinced otherwise, says general practitioner Bertrand Magnier (ph). He plans to get vaccinated to set an example for his patients.

BERTRAND MAGNIER: They are very anxious. And some of them want to wait maybe one, two, six months. They want to wait and to see if there is no problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAETICIA BELLAICHE: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Inside this Paris pharmacy, pharmacist Laeticia Bellaiche (ph) says customers are evenly split between those who trust the newly developed COVID vaccines and those who don't. She says even the pharmacists are divided over whether to get the vaccine.

BELLAICHE: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "If I was diabetic or had underlying health problems or was older, I wouldn't hesitate because you could die," she says. "But it's not the case. So I don't know what to do." A furious President Emmanuel Macron demanded that the vaccine campaign be sped up. The health minister now says a million people will be vaccinated by the end of January.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "UNDER A WARM RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.