On September 4, a prim-looking woman in her early 50s addressed a crowd in the main courtyard of the Louvre Palace in Paris. She called on protesters to stand up against state-mandated pandemic measures, including the “pass sanitaire,” introduced by President Emmanuel Macron’s government on July 21 and compulsory to resume many aspects of daily life in France, such as using public transport and eating in restaurants. 

“We have let down old people. We didn’t smile at our newborns because women gave birth wearing masks,” she exclaimed. “This is the society that we don’t want anymore. We want to re-establish human connection.” 

Until 2018, when she stepped down for personal reasons, Alexandra Henrion-Caude had enjoyed a successful career as a geneticist at INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. She was already known to be a conservative Roman Catholic, with links to groups that oppose gay marriage, but during the coronavirus crisis, has emerged as an influential figure within the country’s anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movements, telling her 60,000 Twitter followers that the mRNA technology used in some coronavirus vaccines can modify human DNA and railing against Covid-19 restrictions. 

Henrion-Caude is just one of a significant number of prominent French medical professionals with such views. France exhibited high levels of resistance to vaccines long before the coronavirus ripped through the world. According to a June 2019 study, conducted by Gallup World Poll for the medical charity Wellcome, one in three French people believed all vaccines to be unsafe. That same year, the virologist Luc Montagnier — winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for medicine, in honor of his discovery of the HIV virus — made public statements linking childhood immunizations to instances of sudden infant death syndrome.  

The movement against the French government’s pandemic response first rocked cities across the country in autumn 2020, with the Yellow Vest anti-lockdown protests. Its momentum has not diminished. Since July, more than 200,000 people from across the political spectrum have taken to the streets every Saturday, from Paris to Marseille, chanting for the restoration of “liberté” and demanding that “Macron, get out.” 

France has now recorded more than 116,000 Covid-19 deaths. In December 2020, just 40% of people said that they intended to get vaccinated, according to figures from the French health authority Sante Publique. While that number has climbed steadily — 84% declared that they were in favor in July — thousands continue to voice vociferous opposition to health passes and vaccines. 

I recently spoke to a number of French doctors who have publicly criticized Covid-19 vaccines. Michel de Lorgeril, a 70-year-old specialist in cardiology and nutrition at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, has written several books in which he has attempted to demonstrate that the science behind all vaccines is flawed. During a telephone conversation, he lectured me at length and declared, “I’m a CNRS researcher and no one has disputed my standing as a scientist.” 

De Lorgeril’s latest book, which disputes that vaccination is a suitable solution to the coronavirus crisis, has been accompanied by a small number of media appearances. One — broadcast by the Russian state-controlled TV channel RT France and viewed more than 99,000 times on YouTube — saw him pitted against experts encouraging people to get their shots. Bombarding the presenter and his fellow guests with purported evidence of his ideas, he appeared worryingly convincing. 

“The main question, the one that towers over all the others and has been entirely dodged by health authorities and the media, is whether we have demonstrated that these vaccines are safe, and therefore, useful,” he told me. “If you go back in history, the idea that vaccines have helped eradicate diseases is indefensible.”

As in many other countries, French suspicions about Covid-19 and the measures necessary to slow its spread can be traced back to a series of political blunders. In March 2020, Health Minister Olivier Véran, stated that wearing a mask in public was not necessary for the general public and failed to provide health workers with sufficient personal protective equipment. On September 10, Agnès Buzyn, who ran the ministry when the pandemic first hit, was indicted by a special court of ministerial accountability for “endangering the life of others” during her response to the pandemic. 

Thomas C. Durand is a biologist who runs La Tronche en biais, a website and YouTube channel dedicated to encouraging critical thinking. He and his colleagues have done a great deal to debunk false information about coronavirus and the vaccines designed to combat it. He explained that many medical professionals are angry at the government’s mishandling of the crisis, which may have made some of them less willing to believe its health messaging.

“Macron said, during lockdown, that medals would be given to doctors. Who gives a damn? There was also a clap for carers at 8 p.m. Great,” Durand said. “The current government has carried out policies that undo the French health system, and suddenly we should trust them?”

Some have other grievances. Violaine Guérin, a 61-year-old endocrinologist and gynecologist who works as a private practitioner in an affluent area of Paris, remains aggrieved that she was not allowed to treat patients in person during the height of the pandemic. She also told me that she began to notice a series of “anomalies” after the crisis started. 

“One was to tell people to stay at home,” she said. “Usually, when a person gets sick, they get an appointment with their general practitioner. Changing this process wasn’t normal. Some patients saw their condition deteriorate and died at home.”

Guérin added that, in conversations with other doctors abroad, she and her colleagues got the sense that healthcare workers around the world “had all received the same instructions” and that “something abnormal was taking place.”

For French coronavirus and vaccine skeptics, pronouncements made by the prominent microbiologist Didier Raoult proved a major turning point. In March 2020, Raoult, who is the founder and head of the Marseille-based Institute of Infectious Diseases (IHU), said that he had successfully treated patients displaying Covid-19 symptoms with hydroxychloroquine, a cheap anti-malarial drug, and the commonly prescribed antibiotic azithromycin. 

Raoult, 69, built a huge audience, posting videos on the IHU’s YouTube channel and making frequent TV appearances. He now has more than 800,000 followers on Twitter. His ideas spread across the globe. Embraced by Donald Trump in the United States and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, they confused millions of people desperate for solutions and eroded faith in vaccines on a massive scale. 

In May 2020, the nation’s health ministry banned the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients. In December of that year, Raoult was one of six doctors against whom the country’s general medical council filed complaints related to their statements on the treatment of Covid-19. He was also accused of various breaches of medical ethics. Raoult has since retired from his teaching job at Aix-Marseille University, but remains as head of the IHU. 

Yet, Guérin and some of her colleagues are convinced that he was treated unfairly and still believe his supposed cure to be effective. In response, they launched an organization known as Laissons les médecins prescrire (Let doctors prescribe). The movement was supported by Martine Wonner, a 57-year-old psychiatrist and member of parliament, who has described masks as “absolutely useless” and was expelled from Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party in May 2021 for voting against the government’s lockdown plans. 

“We were reacting to the ban on prescribing hydroxychloroquine, but keen to defend the freedom to prescribe in general,” Guérin told me.

Despite his other problematic positions, De Lorgeril is scathing about the idea of allowing doctors to prescribe whatever they like.

“This idea is all very nice but, in practice, it’s catastrophic. You have all sorts of examples, from statins to opiates in the U.S., which have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world in the space of a few decades, and were prescribed by doctors,” he said. “Given how mediocre doctors’ training is, one should really not let them do what they want to do.”

While Raoult falls short of being an outright anti-vaxxer, his support for immunization against coronavirus has been muted. In July, he posted on Twitter, encouraging healthcare professionals to get their shots. Other than that, he appears ambivalent, stating that people who have recovered from the disease are better protected against the virus than those who have been vaccinated. In early September, he cut short a TV interview when he was asked whether he recommended that people get vaccinated. 

“He’s only done one tweet encouraging vaccination,” said Durand. “Why doesn’t he say that the vaccine works? I think he wants to boost his personal image, and avoid hurting the anti-vaxxers’ feelings.” 

Christian Perronne — a 66-year-old doctor, who, until December 2020, headed the department of infectious diseases at Raymond-Poincaré University Hospital in the Parisian suburb of Garches — is another well-known vaccine skeptic. Since the pandemic began, he has published two books, including a best-seller titled “Is There A Mistake They Haven’t Made?” He was dismissed as a department head for his claims about coronavirus, but still works at the hospital as a doctor and teaches at Versailles Saint-Quentin University. 

Speaking by telephone, Perronne said, “These products that are called vaccines should never have received the authorization to be sold, given that we have several products which work very well against Covid-19 and cure 100% of patients if they are treated sufficiently early. There are hundreds of publications proving this, and all of this has been ignored by manufacturers and by the authorities because, if they acknowledge that a drug is effective, they will lose the right to commercialize the vaccine.”

He then alleged that a number of his personal acquaintances had suffered devastating side-effects after receiving coronavirus vaccines. 

“Around me, four people I know well have died after being vaccinated, some had very serious accidents, malignant hypertension, thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, paralysis, loss of vision,” he said. He also described how others had “become zombies, who are not like before and have lost all their energy.”

Henrion-Caude, Perronne and Wonner were all interviewed in Hold-up (2020), a French film that puts forward the idea that the coronavirus crisis sits at the center of an elaborate international conspiracy. Despite having been removed from several video-sharing platforms, it has been viewed more than two million times. 

Slowly, French people are getting vaccinated. According to a health ministry press release, published in September, 69% are now fully vaccinated. But all of the vaccine-skeptic doctors I interviewed told me that they had not and were proud to openly express their resistance.

“I hope the French people will not submit and will say, ‘Enough,'” Perrone said.