According to a poll conducted in France by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in late June, controversial French doctor Didier Raoult, the director of the Mediterranean Infection Foundation in Marseille (IHU Méditerrannée), is relatively popular among the French public, more so, perhaps, than any other active French politician. Dr Raoult’s net approval rating for his actions during the coronavirus pandemic, which include treating his patients with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, stood at a net +10% approval. Only the recently resigned Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, came close with a +9% net approval.
This positive approval rating for Dr. Raoult comes amid a fierce, politically charged debate surrounding hydroxychloroquine, the drug which he has aggressively promoted as a cure for coronavirus. However, a notable 37% of French respondents neither approved nor disapproved or said that they do not know, indicating that a large portion of the French public has yet to make their minds up on Dr. Raoult, if they ever will.
Dr Raoult has been criticised for well documented errors and omissions in his clinical trials on hydroxychloroquine, such as failing to publish the results of six patients taking the drug and claiming that control patients who had not been tested for the virus on a given day had tested positive. He also rejects the standard clinical practice of randomised controlled trials to test the efficacy of drugs, arguing that his responsibilities are first to his patients and second to science.
Side effects to hydroxychloroquine and the minimal positive benefits seen in other studies have led medical authorities in France as well as in the United States to revoke approval for the drug’s usage as a treatment for coronavirus. Other countries, however, still apply the drug in combination with others for treatment, and a study on the use of the drug as a preventive measure has recently resumed. A Lancet study discrediting hydroxychloroquine’s applicability to coronavirus was retracted, after its authors were unable to provide the data underlying the study.
When prompted with a statement suggesting France was wrong to ban use of the drug for curing coronavirus, a plurality (36%) agreed while 20% disagreed. Again, it is worth noting that nearly half of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed or said they do not know.
Meanwhile, perhaps indicative of a general scepticism towards the medical establishment, just 48% of respondents said they would get vaccinated within the next year if a vaccine becomes available. In comparison to other European countries, this figure is the lowest. As seen in the chart below, approximately 70% of respondents in Spain and in the United Kingdom indicated they would get vaccinated in such a scenario.
As his medical claims have come under intense scrutiny, Dr. Raoult has firmly defended his claims in interviews and at a recent hearing before the French Parliament’s coronavirus investigative committee. In all these appearances, he has demonstrated an eccentric and fiercely combative streak that has won both detractors and fans. President Macron even visited Raoult in April and gave his blessing to clinical trials of the drug in an attempt to reduce the appearance that the doctor was being ignored and even thwarted by the Government.
When a majority of the public has found France’s handling of the coronavirus crisis inadequate, many may therefore turn to the eccentric Dr. Raoult for guidance because his claims are dismissed by authorities.
Moreover, a majority of the French public do not believe President Macron is someone who tells the truth or cares about ‘people like me,’ which contrasts with Dr. Raoult’s self-declared obligation to give all his patients medication he believed would work (a reason why some ‘control subjects’ in Raoult’s first publication on hydroxychloroquine and coronavirus were from another hospital).
Although some of this scepticism towards Macron likely pre-dates the coronavirus crisis, it may partially explain Dr. Raoult’s relative popularity. The coronavirus crisis, while first and foremost a public health crisis, has a political component, and the politicisation of medicine is readily apparent in France.