France takes careful vaccine approach to counter skepticism

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A health worker carries doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in a box at the Rene-Muret hospital in Servan near Paris, Sunday Dec. 27, 2020. France is starting its first vaccinations Sunday against the coronavirus at a nursing home northeast of Paris, in one of France's poorest regions. (Thomas Samson/Pool Photo via AP)

PARIS – While governments across Europe kicked off their virus vaccination plans this weekend with fanfare, France took a more low-key approach because of widespread skepticism among it citizens around the vaccines.

After the first shots were injected Sunday into the arm of 78-year-old Mauricette, a woman in a long-term care facility near Paris, President Emmanuel Macron appealed to his compatriots: “Let’s have trust in our researchers and doctors. We are the nation of the Enlightenment and of (vaccine pioneer Louis) Pasteur. Reason and science should guide us.”

Yet many of his compatriots worry. They remember French health scandals in recent decades, including those involving mismanaged vaccines. They fear that the coronavirus vaccines were developed too quickly, are aimed at bringing profit to big pharmaceutical companies, or risk long-term side effects that the world will only discover years from now.

France has lost more lives to the virus than most countries, and its economy — one of the world's biggest — has been deeply crippled by two virus lockdowns. Doctors hope that French vaccine hesitancy will fade as more people get vaccinated.

Dr. Jean-Jacques Monsuez, a 65-year-old cardiologist at a nursing home northeast of Paris, was France’s second vaccine recipient Sunday. After he and several elderly patients were injected, he said, “they are vaccinated, we are vaccinated, we are all in the same boat. And the boat cannot sink.

“And around the boat there is a country that cannot sink.”

Politicians on France's far right and far left have fueled vaccine concerns, but polls commissioned by the national health agency suggest that the skepticism comes from some moderate voters too.

Justine Lardon walks with a crutch after suffering severe side effects from a hepatitis B vaccine in 2010, and is hesitating over whether to get vaccinated against the virus. She told regional newspaper Le Progres that she supports vaccination, but is concerned that doctors don’t pay enough attention to individual health issues.