Vaccine Rollout: France Is Failing at What It’s Meant to Do Best

About the best thing you can say about the start of France’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign is that it surely can’t get any worse. 

The homeland of vaccine pioneer Louis Pasteur, and the source of major scientific victories such as the discovery of HIV in the 1980s, is today at the bottom of the charts when it comes to coronavirus jabs. France had administered 516 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine as of Sunday, two weeks after it was approved by the European Union. That’s far behind Germany’s 238,809 inoculations and the U.K.’s 947,206. 

While the French tend to like comparing themselves to their nearest neighbors — in economic performance or technology the popular mindset is to imagine France and the U.K. duking it out for silver behind the uber-efficient Germans — this snapshot is far more global and far more humbling. The only country on Bloomberg’s Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker with fewer vaccinations is Costa Rica, at 55. At this rate, it would take France about 400 years to vaccinate its people; Israel, meanwhile, has already covered the equivalent of 12% of its population.

The usual excuses and explanations are being trotted out: Vaccines aren’t a toy, this isn’t a race, and it’s over the top to judge countries by what happens over the course of a couple of weeks. It’s true that forecasts have been foiled many times in this pandemic.

But so much of what’s happening now speaks to deeper, worrying cracks in the French state — which should, judging by the amount of money flowing into the state’s coffers every year, be very good at deploying public resources for a centrally planned operation. Instead, much like the shortage of masks and the failed test-and-trace infrastructure seen last year, the opposite is being proven.

Despite having known for some time that the logistics of the Pfizer vaccine would be complex and that the French are among the most vaccine-hesitant in the world, foresight failed to translate into pragmatism. The doses are there, but the supply chain looks long, requiring in one case a cross-country delivery by taxi. A rollout strategy by age group and vulnerability now looks too narrow and meticulous, restricting care workers by age. And a focus on informed consent, while noble, has generated a lot of paperwork without a robust mass communication campaign on the benefits of vaccination.

President Emmanuel Macron should have been a force for good here. As a former minister and product of an elite French civil-service education, he knows where the bottlenecks of central planning lie. And his voter base, the affluent pro-European urbanites labeled as the “bourgeois bloc” by French pollster Jerome Fourquet, are on the whole pro-vaxxers — far more so than fans of Macron’s opponents on the far-right and far-left.

Yet Macron’s brand of techno-populism is working against him. He has become politically defensive as he fights for re-election next year, extending his direct grip over the country’s opaque pandemic strategy while simultaneously blasting execution as too slow. His fear of a return to the widespread Gilets Jaunes protests of 2018 has also seen him make some strange choices, such as promising to pick 35 French people at random to give their view on the vaccine rollout. This could easily backfire.

At a time when France needs both leadership and a strong state, both seem curiously absent. Macron's current prime minister, Jean Castex, looks lost at sea. His popular predecessor, Edouard Philippe, who was fired last year by the president, sounds like the voice of reason from the sidelines. “I know what humanity owes to vaccines,” he said last month.

It’s not too late for France to turn things around. Access to the vaccine can be expanded without making it mandatory. A more positive promotion of its benefits shouldn’t be hard to make in a country where several areas are now in the grip of a 6 p.m. curfew. Too much focus on anti-vaxxers risks failing to sway those who are still on the fence.

Yet doing so means drawing the right lessons from pandemics past and present. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was written off as an overblown failure of excess intervention: Batches of shots were bought at great expense but went unused and a stockpile of masks was left to gather dust. That has driven an opposite approach in France — to go slow, while putting the focus on blunter solutions like lockdowns and state support for the economy. 

Yes, this is a marathon and not a sprint. But the starting blocks matter. After the success of other countries, particularly in Asia, in deploying their state apparatus to impressive effect in containing cases, it’s time for France to look abroad on vaccines too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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