COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

Even the unvaccinated in Italy and France are surprisingly okay with new hard-line vaccine mandates

January 7, 2022, 12:45 PM UTC

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, two of Europe’s biggest economies—Italy and France—are offering the world some clues about what happens if governments finally try to force people to get vaccinated, rather than encouraging, urging, and cajoling them, as they have done since coronavirus jabs rolled out about 13 months ago.

It turns out that most people—even a fair number of unvaccinated ones—will accept the new reality and allow their governments to tighten the screws on their lives.

That’s the conclusion of a survey conducted for Fortune this week by the polling firm Ipsos, among about 2,000 people in France and Italy.

The results surprised even the pollsters.

“There are very, very few people who are screaming” about new mandatory COVID-19 vaccine rules, says Andrei Postoaca, CEO of Ipsos Digital, speaking to Fortune from his home in the South of France. “I would have expected in a country like France to see people who were vaccinated saying, ‘I don’t want the country to mandate it.’ But this does not seem to happen,” he says. “The fear and acceptance of the seriousness of this is above all the opinions about what the government should do.”

That is crucial for Italy and France—and other governments, including the United States, that might be considering making COVID-19 vaccines compulsory. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on President Joe Biden’s plan to have businesses with more than 100 employees demand vaccines or frequent coronavirus tests from their staff.

“Piss off…to the end”

As the Omicron variant has sent Europe’s infection rates rocketing this month, French President Emmanuel Macron opted to make vaccines mandatory for people over 18, in order to enter cinemas, restaurants, bars, concert halls, and other public places—igniting a furious political debate over his remark on Tuesday that he wanted to “piss off” unvaccinated people “to the end.”

Likewise, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi opted to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for those over 50.

Among unvaccinated adults in France, about 23% would support Macron introducing the same compulsory vaccine for those over 50, according to the Ipsos poll, while another 16% were neither for or against the idea. In fact, Macron and Draghi’s hard-line attitude could pay off in their race to get unvaccinated people to accept COVID-19 jabs.

About 70% of people polled in Italy, and 67% of those in France, said they will get a vaccine jab within the next 30 days. Many of those might represent people seeking booster shots.

But in France, one-third of the 5 million unvaccinated people—those Macron wants to “piss off”—say they agree with the mandate. “People are scared,” Postoaca says. “You feel it. You have at least a couple of friends who have COVID right now,” he says. “You accept some trade-offs.”

Even so, in France, where Macron faces a reelection battle in April, there are limits to people’s support. About 53% of the 1,000 people Ipsos polled in France supported the hard-line new mandate. That is lower than earlier data before Christmas from the polling agency Odoxa, which showed that two-thirds of people supported the vaccine mandate. And yet Macron still faces a fierce political battle to push his plan through.

Please read: No jab, no job: Europe’s workers face tough measures as politicians lay down the law

The mandate, which passed the National Assembly on Thursday, is scheduled for ratification in the French Senate next week, before coming into force on Jan. 15. But Macron’s political rivals have accused Macron of creating a “climate of hysteria” around the issue of vaccine mandates and are likely to insist that the new law has a firm expiry date—perhaps in the summer—and that it would not allow widespread policing of people’s IDs.

Italian support

In Italy, public support is higher for mandates. That could have something to do with the country’s vast elderly population and the scarring memories of a health care system under siege in the prosperous north of the country in the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, in the winter and spring of 2020.

By a four-to-one majority, Italians support the country’s new vaccine mandate for those age 50 and over, the Ipsos survey, which was conducted the day after the mandate was officially announced, found.

There is no serious talk in Italy of extending the mandate to the rest of the vaccine-eligible populace. Even still, such a proposal finds a similar level of support in Italy, the Ipsos survey of roughly 1,000 Italians found.

And there’s potentially good news for employers as poll respondents in both countries support a vaccine mandate for the private sector. Both countries last year adopted some of the strictest workplace vaccine requirements anywhere in the world.

Even the unvaccinated see the logic in a vaccine mandate, apparently. A full 20% of Ipsos survey respondents in Italy who described themselves as unvaccinated said that they in fact support a universal mandate requiring all Italians to get the COVID vaccine. In France, 23% of the “un-vaxed” cohort said they would support a mandate only on those aged 50 or above.

As Postoaca points out, these findings, and a separate Ipsos data point in the same survey about the increased willingness to get the COVID vaccine in the next month, suggests the skeptics are one by one concluding it’s time to get off the fence and get the jab.

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.