In this article we examine the transformation over the past two decades of public health as a policy arena in France from a backwater of little interest to politicians, bureaucrats, the media, and the public into a central preoccupation of the state. Recent dramatic health crises (the scandal over HIV-contaminated blood, mad cow disease, etc.) have substantially raised the political profile of (and corresponding state investment in) public health in France, offering opportunities and incentives for political actors not traditionally associated with public health to enter the field and challenging more traditional actors to galvanize themselves and compete for this newly attractive policy terrain. We use the occasion of the passage of a public health law in 2004, labeled by its proponents as the “first” public health law in one hundred years, to show how, in a context of national struggle to contain both risks and costs, “public health” — chameleonlike — has taken on various meanings and forms to serve highly conflicting political interests.

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