By the end of last week, a quarter of a million people in France had received a Covid vaccination. In the UK, with a slightly smaller population, the number was above three million. Convert this into percentage terms, and the UK tops the European league at 4.52 jabs per 100 people. France languishes in 24th place on 0.38. For the first time since the pandemic struck, the French see their public policy response lagging their neighbours across the Channel, and other neighbours too.
One part of the reason is that the UK stole a march in approving the first vaccine for general use, perforating its first bicep on 8 December while the EU, having deliberated more cautiously over the reliability of vaccine testing, didn't give vaccination programmes the nod until just before Christmas.
Contrary to the impression left by Downing Street flag-wavers, this wasn't a matter of Brexit liberating 'world-beating' Britain from bureaucratic Brussels. EU member states already have an established process for opting out of the European Medicines Agency regime and licensing medications pro tem at national level. Besides, the UK was still subject to EU rules in December.
The bigger point is that decisions on how to roll out vaccinations have nothing to do with Brussels. It is national, not EU, policy that is driving the numbers. Denmark, an EU member, has a per capita vaccination rate more than five times greater than France's. A few hours' drive either side of our home in Montpellier, Italy has almost four times the French vaccination rate and Spain almost three times. This is a French issue, not an EU one.
For the nation that gave the world Louis Pasteur, France has a rather puzzling tradition of distrusting vaccination, which for some symbolises bossy State paternalism. Children in France are required by law to have 11 different vaccinations before they attend school, a precaution no more popular with parents than with the children, and evidence for some people of the 'deep State' at work.
In recent years, suspicion of the syringe has fed on a series of unrelated, but emotive, scandals. In the early 1990s, a campaign to vaccinate children against Hepatitis B was believed by conspiracy theorists, without proof, to be behind a spike in MS; a scare reminiscent of the British MMR hoo-hah. Around the same time, again as in Britain, there were protracted court cases raised on behalf of haemophiliacs given HIV-tainted blood products.
A decade ago, public confidence sustained two further blows. First, the government was found to have grossly over-procured supplies of H1N1, a vaccine for what turned out to be only a moderately serious disease. Rumours inevitably circulated of officials in the pocket of Big Pharma. Then came Mediator, an appetite-suppressant licensed to help Type 2 diabetics to shed weight. Hundreds died, and the lawyers are even yet picking profitably over the cadavers.
All this plays powerfully to the prejudices of a country never too eager anyway to trust the State about anything. The Trumpian right in France, as in Britain and elsewhere, can find threats to freedom in places most of us can't even find places. Their only constraint is the logical difficulty of pandering to popular prejudice against vaccination while simultaneously lambasting the detested Macron for not getting the programme up and running faster. Hence, far right leader, Marine Le Pen, started out as an opponent of vaccination, but now says she has decided to roll up her sleeve and is urging others to do likewise. And actually, though the issue did mobilise some of the same people previously seen barging about in high-viz semmits, there has been nothing to match the scale of the anti-lockdown protests next door in Germany. There were some spirited demonstrations against compulsory mask wearing, but police quelled the uprising in their usual tactful way by rounding up the protestors and fining them heavily for not wearing their masks.
All the same, recent polls show only 40% (against 77% of Britons) definitely intending to undergo vaccination. In the first week of roll-out, 500 took up the offer in France, compared with 200,000 in Germany. The authorities predict that doubters will be won over once the programme scales up, but public ambivalence has fuelled an instinct among policy-makers to ca' canny: which is, in its turn, the main reason for the slow start to the French vaccination programme. Increasingly, it is the policy rather than the pace that has come under criticism.
Initially, officials insisted the sloth was purposeful, enabling the State to (as one put it) 'do things well in terms of security, effectiveness, organisation and ethics'. The key decision was to focus on vaccinating the elderly. This has proved unwise on several counts: consents from elderly people can be slow to secure; the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70C, which does not lend itself to being shipped into care homes; front-line workers were left unprotected. There was also criticism of the decision to run the programme through GP practices, rather than at mass vaccination centres.
By the time New Year passed, the volume of complaint from healthcare elders like the top geneticist Axel Kahn ('disastrous') was unignorable. A reportedly furious Macron summoned ministers to an emergency summit at the Élysée, the traditional recourse of a President who fears he's going to get it in the neck for someone else's blunder. Prime Minister Jean Castex was dispatched to the airwaves late last week to announce a new approach, which began on Monday.
Now health staff aged over 50, plus some 800,000 people with chronic health vulnerabilities, have been added to the priority list, a target set of a million vaccinations by the end of January, and (a current fad of French politics) a 'citizens' collective' set up to address public concerns. Vaccination centres have opened, for which eligible people can make their own appointments.
How effective this will be in quelling disquiet remains to be seen. Public morale is not high. The second wave of infection is a distinctly strange time in France. November's strict lockdown was largely respected, like its spring predecessor, but subsequent fitful relaxations have left a dispiriting sense that people are now able to live their lives as usual, except for the enjoyable bits.
You can work all day, but can't have a night out. You can jog in busy streets (maskless: why?) but not, even masked, watch sport. You can endure crowded shopping precincts, but without the compensatory aperitif or café crème afterwards. You can travel freely between départments, to see how shuttered restaurants look the same everywhere. You can watch dismal gameshows, but are denied the theatre, cinema or concert hall. You can walk, but you cannot dance. You can look at adverts, but not paintings.
It is a doldrum, a slog, a grey cheerless purgatory. In many countries, for sure, infection levels are higher and the restrictions tougher. Virus fatigue is scarcely a unique trait of the French. But whereas people elsewhere are starting to lift their heads in hope of a solution, and to fidget impatiently in the vaccination queue, the French are not so sure about any of it. The job for government is to dispel the despondent mood, and quickly.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster