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PARIS : The French have long been wary of vaccines, but a mixture of mandates and inducements encouraged millions to get the shot as the Delta variant spread

When France started vaccinating its population at the start of the year, it had one of the highest rates of hesitancy in the world. Today, it has one of the highest vaccination rates among larger Western countries, after a mix of enticements and government pressure pushed millions of French to receive the shot this summer.

The success of the French campaign is such that the government has floated the idea of loosening in parts of the country some of the restrictions it put on this summer. Notably, that includes the requirement to show a health pass with the holder’s vaccine status or test results to eat out, go to nightclubs or attend sports events. On Sept. 22, France announced plans to end the requirements for children to wear masks in primary schools in some parts of the country.

More than 14 million people in France have received a first vaccine dose in the 11 weeks since the government enacted the health pass to enter many public spaces and said the vaccine would become mandatory for health workers and other staff in hospitals and nursing homes. Some 88% of people over 12 years old in France have received at least one shot of vaccine, more than the U.S., U.K. or Germany. Its infection rate is now below 61 cases per 100,000 people, compared with 241 cases per 100,000 in the U.S. as of Sept. 24. The French figure is declining by more than one-quarter each week, with deaths and hospitalizations falling, too.

“The president’s strategy of maximum incitation to get vaccinated has paid off," government spokesman Gabriel Attal said last week.

Initially there was resistance to the health pass, and there are still reservations about legally requiring some groups of people to get Covid-19 shots. Implemented in August, the pass system requires people who want to do everything from sit at a Parisian cafe to take a high-speed train to show a scannable code proving complete vaccination against Covid-19, recovery from Covid-19 or a recent negative test. Nationwide protests against the initiative at times attracted more than 200,000 people.

But it also spurred millions of people to get vaccinated, which French officials credit with curbing the spread of the Delta variant, while holdouts in the health sector appear to be coming around, too.

The French experience comes as many U.S. states, as well as the federal government, are wrestling with possible vaccine mandates for certain groups of people. President Biden’s plan to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, announced earlier this month, includes vaccine requirements affecting roughly 100 million workers.

France’s shift is a major turnaround for a country that at the start of summer was lagging behind other Western nations in vaccinations and watching a steep increase in coronavirus cases, and which has a history of reticence about vaccines.

A poll in 2018 gave France the lowest levels of trust in vaccines out of 144 countries surveyed. In December, an Ipsos poll conducted found that France ranked at the bottom of 15 countries on willingness to take a Covid-19 vaccine, with only 40% of the public saying they wanted the shot.

On July 12, however, President Emmanuel Macron appeared on national TV and made a surprise announcement: A health pass would be required to enter many public spaces, even outdoor restaurants. At the same time, Mr. Macron said the vaccine would become mandatory for health workers.

“I’m conscious of what I am asking of you," Mr. Macron said. “I know that you are ready for this commitment."

It was a risk. Opposition politicians denounced what they said was an affront on personal liberty and warned that Mr. Macron risked dividing the country at a time when the economy was just starting to get back on its feet.

At a bistro in the center of Paris, manager Jamel Soussi had been considering getting vaccinated to visit his wife abroad, but he had misgivings about the shot. “I didn’t want to do it," he said. “I was hearing a lot of things: In two years, the streets will be full of cadavers. It’s going to kill us. It was word-of-mouth. I thought, ‘Well, I want to live!’ "

He got his first dose the day after Mr. Macron’s speech.

Down the road at Lupo caffè, manager Fabrice Amarante said the three workers he employed under the age of 40 were yet to receive their first shot when Mr. Macron made his announcements. A week later, all three had received their first dose.

“It was effective. Very effective," Mr. Amarante said. “Those who said they’d wait and see, within a few days they were all vaccinated with a first dose. Macron’s speech accelerated things."

In the three days after Mr. Macron’s address, more than three million people made a reservation for a first shot via Doctolib, the website people use to book vaccines. More than nine million people got a first shot in the month that followed.

Weekly protests against the health pass have continued, but the number of protesters has been declining. On Saturday, the interior ministry estimated 63,700 protesters participated nationwide, down from about 80,000 the week before.

On Sept. 16—the first day health workers were required to be vaccinated—France suspended around 3,000 people around the country for failing to comply with the order. French Health Minister Olivier Véran said the suspensions represented only 0.1% of the 2.7 million jobs in the sector. “A large number of these suspensions are temporary," Mr. Véran said, adding that many were agreeing to get a shot after seeing that the vaccination mandate was real.

Cédric Laugier, a nurse in the south of France, was among those suspended for refusing to get the vaccine. He doesn’t believe vaccines will lead to collective immunity and thinks the risks outweigh the benefits for younger age groups.

“It’s an incredibly high price to pay," he said of being suspended from his job. Mr. Laugier recently moved into an apartment right next to the hospital where he works and said it was the job he had always wanted.

The 37-year-old weighed getting the vaccine to return to work, but has so far decided against it. “Do I cede to a law I find incoherent, or do I follow my convictions?" he said.

Mr. Attal, the government spokesman, said the government is working on legislation to extend the length of the health pass plan beyond its current limit of Nov. 15, though it may ease the requirements in areas with low levels of the virus in circulation and high vaccination rates.

“Without the health pass, we would have had to again close the restaurants, bars, cinemas, theaters; all of this in the heart of summer," Mr. Attal said.

It also is being made compulsory for middle and high school children to enter some public places, in part to encourage them to get vaccinated, too.

Géraldine Godet, a dietitian at a hospital in Paris, brought two of her children to get vaccinated at a center east of Paris this month. The 12- and 14-year-olds will need to show a valid health pass to attend activities such as swimming and volleyball starting on Sept. 30.

“They wanted the vaccine anyway, but when we explained they needed it to play their sports, it just ensured that they were fully convinced," Ms. Godet said.

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