Misinformation and a history of health scandals have led to a powerful anti-vax movement.
A French court on Thursday gave suspended jail terms to three soldiers convicted over the drowning of a trainee officer during an initiation ritual at the country’s most prestigious military academy.
Jallal Hami, 24, drowned overnight on October 29, 2012, while crossing a swamp as part of an exercise meant to teach the Saint-Cyr officer school’s traditions to new recruits.
A total of seven soldiers, including a general, were tried for manslaughter.
A court in Rennes, a city in France’s western Brittany region near the Saint-Cyr academy, sentenced an army captain, a commanding officer and a soldier who has since left the military to suspended terms of between six and eight months.
Four other defendants, including the general who was in charge of training at Saint-Cyr at the time, were cleared of the charges.
Hami’s brother Rachid, who had accused the second-year students behind the hazing ritual of running amok, reacted angrily to the verdict.
“You have betrayed my brother once again,” he said.
On the night of Hami’s death, new recruits were told to swim across a swamp for 43 metres (47 yards) weighed down by their helmets in 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit) water.
The exercise was meant to simulate a beach landing.
To the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” – famously used in the war movie Apocalypse Now – the recruits jumped into the cold water. Several quickly struggled and went under, gasping for air and clutching at others.
Organisers threw them lifebelts to help them out but it was too late for Jallal Hami, who was reported missing.
Firefighters, alerted an hour later, found his body at 2:35am near the bank of the swamp.
During the trial, the state prosecutor blasted the “madness” of an initiation ritual fuelled by “uncontrolled testosterone” and asked the court to give six of the defendants suspended terms of up to two years.
The prosecutor had however called for General Francis Chanson’s acquittal.
Chanson’s lawyer William Pineau had said that while the events were “tragic”, his client could not be held criminally responsible “because he did not know what really went on on the ground”.
Jallal Hami came to France in 1992 with his mother and brothers to escape Algeria’s civil war.
Hami had for years dreamed of being admitted to Saint-Cyr, which was founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Hami had earned a diploma from elite university Sciences Po, studied Mandarin and excelled at sports, qualifications that allowed him to enter the officer school directly as a third-year trainee.