One of the many anti covid passport portests France has seen in recent months, this time in front of the LouvreReuters

As a student currently on their year abroad in Strasbourg, I have seen first-hand how President Emmanuel Macron’s rhetoric inflames the anger of anti-vaccine protestors, whose numbers ballooned from hundreds to thousands over the holidays in response to his recent statements.

The widely accepted English translation of Macron’s damning statement is “I really want to piss them off.” However, the connotations of his words are more vulgar than the translation suggests. Having also been president during the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) era, Macron needs to be very careful to avoid a repetition of history.

While the anger and the willingness to enforce restrictions is not misplaced, Macron’s words were nothing more than counterproductive. No political leader should follow his example.

“Yet there is much to lose by riling up a group of people who, while ever-present, have thus far largely kept quiet in traditional media”

Whether leaders are supposed to be unbiased remains up for debate, but at the very least they are supposed to be tactful. No real gain was to be had from his statement, as France not only holds a high vaccination rate but also enforces stringent measures which have further tightened as of the 15th January. Yet there is much to lose by riling up a group of people who, while ever-present, have thus far largely kept quiet in traditional media except for debates about liberties — something which France in general is quite insistent on. Devastatingly, Macron’s choice to condemn, and not educate, suggests that this was most likely a political manoeuvre to sway those who are vaccinated to vote for him in the coming presidential elections.

None of this is as important as questioning how we should feel about those who Macron addressed with his statement: all unvaccinated individuals. Some people have genuinely been told on medical grounds to avoid the vaccine. However, a much larger group of people have decided this for themselves. If we were to remove political agenda from the equation, it is this group of people who Macron should have been targeting.

As a strong believer in listening to trained scientists and medical professionals, the temptation to retaliate with a blunt response to those who choose not to vaccinate themselves is understandable. And as someone who has engaged in politics for several years, it is difficult not to align this issue with John Stuart Mills’ Harm Principle: that everyone is free to act as they choose as long as their actions do not harm someone else. Choosing not to vaccinate and protect those around you when you are capable of doing so surely flouts this principle.

So, what could be the right way to lessen the impact of anti-vaccination propaganda?

Unfortunately, simply ignoring anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists will not sort the issue out. Nor should we demonise them, as that would help their cause by enabling them to paint themselves as victims. The ideal solution is to show their points of view in media and then laugh. This was done during Jason Manford’s recent Noel at the Apollo set, aired on the BBC. Comedy has a universal appeal and using it would devalue those who are peddling anti-vaccine messages, producing a greater impact than telling them that they are wrong.

After all, ignorance is not to blame.

“If you have chosen not to take the vaccine, you have done so being no less ignorant and no more informed than everybody else”

One credit to the COVID-19 media coverage is that it has been extensive. Everybody has access to the same information. If you have chosen not to take the vaccine, you have done so being no less ignorant and no more informed than everybody else. Unless you are actively working with and analysing data as a health or medical professional, the world doesn’t need to hear your opinions. We already are being given the facts.

Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly digitalised world that publicises opinions as much as it publicises facts. Anti-vaccination messages are not going away, but fighting them head-on will keep them mainstream, and anything mainstream will be talked about among the wider public. Any message so broadly discussed has the potential to exponentially increase in followers. This is what has happened in the aftermath of Macron explicitly giving his views on the issue.


Mountain View

Free speach, or doublespeak?

Anti-vaxxers thrive on spreading their message to as many people as possible. They want more people to be like them. In order to battle this, everyone should be encouraged to think about themselves and their very immediate family and friends, because we are all selfish at heart.

Political leaders enflame the divide by imposing their own political agenda. That has to stop. The response in France would not have happened if we didn’t live in a world that allows opinions to outweigh data and statistics. If Macron really wanted to convince anti-vaxxers, he should have focused on making vaccination seem like the only credible option, rather than enflaming a population already in the middle of a global crisis.