The Gateway Drug to Populism – The Anti-Vaccine Movement
France has a long history tied to the modern vaccine movement, and a population that is heavily skeptical of vaccines of all kinds. Despite being the home country of one of the fathers of vaccination, a recent survey of French citizens showed that 33% of the French population surveyed do not believe in the efficacy of vaccines.
It might be easy to blame the export of the American anti-vaccine movement as solely responsible for France’s anti-vaxx dilemma, but France has been perfectly capable of brewing their own anti-vaxxers. The movement has incorporated imported American ingredients (the use of the English “Big Pharma” versus a French translation) with French anti-elite practices and anti-vaccine watershed moments, including health scandals from 1991, 2009 ,and 2010, and of course the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is a transnational movement, however, and much like populist ones, there are fundamental elements found in every version that are then adapted to particular locations. Issues of bodily autonomy, anti-intellectualism, and anti-elitism are found in every anti-vaccine movement, but these are flexible enough to fit right into French culture where flexibility is needed.
Populism and Vaccine Hesitancy
Given the similarities in populist and anti-vaxx movements ideologies, its unsurprising that early research finds close correlation between them. While anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism have already been mentioned, these groups often both include conspiracy theory, as well as creating in and out-groups, and, in extreme cases, resorting to violence.
The similarities also include blaming immigrants for national failures. This includes when the Front Nationale’s David Rachline placed the responsibility for the 2017 resurgence of preventable diseases at the feet of French immigrants, an argument against a new law the French government put forward calling for more mandatory childhood vaccines. Marine Le Pen herself waded in, reusing one of the anti-vaccine movement’s most frequent quips about vaccination, “nous connaissons assez peu les conséquences à long terme” as a retort against the bill. Both figures ignored the real cause for the outbreak (erratic and insufficient vaccination rates among the European population) in favour of creating a new anti-immigrant narrative.
COVID-19 has unsurprisingly exacerbated the anti-vaccine issue, as government mandated lockdowns, masks, and vaccines spark populist demonstrations in France. The anti-vaccine movement primed people to engage in these demonstrations, as the anti-vaxx movement had already introduced people to many of the same ideas present in both movements. The degree to which there is cross-over at these events is evident in the presence of far-right nationalist groups, including France’s version of UKIP – Les Patriotes.
These anti-vaccine and anti-vaccine passport demonstrations have also drawn on another populist fall-back: Anti-Semitism. Signs with anti-Semitic visuals, as well as the use of the yellow star the Nazis forced Jewish People to wear to identify them, and comparisons of vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of France have all sprung up as part of the backlash against the Covid-19 vaccine mandates.
Despite the demonstrations and threats of violence, 76.6% of the French population is now vaccinated, a substantial step up from the concerns in January 2021 of the short-comings of the vaccination programme. This has taken effort at a lot of different levels, including television appearances promoting vaccination by President Macron, government vaccine mandates, and grass-roots level groups such as Les Vaxxeuses working anonymously on Facebook to promote accurate vaccine science.
Image courtesy of BBC News