For years I knew Benoît as the sweet, unassuming man who sat behind the counter in our Parisian bank branch. Eventually he was made redundant. Before he disappeared, he started to alert my wife (in whispers) to a worrying state of affairs.
The Egyptian pyramids had been built by extraterrestrial beings, he said. The aliens were still among us, secretly running the world. Their existence was being covered up by the political and business “elites”.
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France might be the country of Descartes, one of the fathers of logic and rationalism. But it is second only to the United States among western countries in its vulnerability to fantastic and fact-free deviations from conventional wisdom. Only three years ago, one survey found that 79% of French adults believed in at least one elaborate conspiracy theory. One in three believed in four of them.
What exactly did they believe? More than half said that they thought the CIA had assassinated President John F. Kennedy, while a similar proportion suggested that the French government was working with the pharmaceutical industry to conceal the fact that all vaccines are dangerous. One in three French people thought that the AIDS virus had been “created in a laboratory and tested on Africans before spreading to the rest of the world”. One in five thought that the “Americans never reached the moon”.
Against this background, it is no surprise to discover that the preposterous but destructive QAnon conspiracy — that Satan-worshipping, liberal elites are trafficking children into sexual slavery and Donald Trump has been sent by God to stop them — is spreading steadily in France.
Earlier this month, Christian Maillaud, a former gendarme and paratrooper, was arrested in the Loire département of central France and accused of trying to foment a military insurrection. Maillaud, 53, also known as “Stan” or the “white Zorro” by his followers, is a leader of the “Conseil national de transition”, which has adopted “Qanoniste” ideology and wants to destroy the Satanist politicians and institutions that (he claims) control France. “He wants to bring together the extreme Right and the extreme Left, the Gilets Jaunes and various conspiracy theorists to create a new world,” explained the local state prosecutor, Eric Neveu.
Maillaud may or may not be a dangerous person. Most probably he is harmless but crazy. He is, however, a symptom of a wider pattern of half-plausible conspiracy theorising — “complotisme” in French — which some people, including the Government, fear may eventually pose a threat to French democracy.
“It’s become a big issue in this country,” says Professor Antoine Bristielle, a researcher into conspiracy theories for the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, “even if we’re not yet at the level of the United States where 56% of Republicans say they believe in QAnon.”
“The problem is that people who come to believe in one conspiracy theory tend to swallow all of them… You see an increasing number of people, not just in the US but also in France, who reject the legitimacy of elections… That could cause a big problem for the Presidential elections here next year.”
Rejection of politicians is one thing; rejection of democracy and democratic institutions is another. Criticism of successive governments is, of course, perfectly normal — as are suggestions that French governments sometimes cover up the truth. Certainly, French voters have had plenty of legitimate gripes against their political leaders in the last four decades.
But the last few years have revealed a pattern of contempt and paranoia in France which goes beyond political opposition or traditional populism — and plunges into elaborate theories of treachery and plots against “The People”. Some of the theories are modern (they blame Bill Gates, Big Tech and Big Pharma) and others are very old (it’s the Jews). All are rapidly propagated online, but they cannot be explained by social media alone.
The Covid pandemic — a phenomenon imperfectly understood and explained by “official sources” — has been an El Dorado for conspiratorial thinking in every country. But France seems to be more susceptible than most.
The original Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018 was partly a rational revolt by rural France against years of limp government and the insolent success of the big cities. It was also accelerated by absurdly inflated allegations, spread on social media, of stolen elections and self-enriching politicians. (“Brigitte Macron gets 500,000 Euros a year from the tax-payer,” was one of the more popular claims.)
Over the past six weeks, it has been much the same with the street demonstrations against the French government’s proposed “health pass”. Some of the protesters have reasonable, or at least rational, arguments against rapidly developed vaccines or assaults on personal freedom. Others carry banners accusing capitalism (Big Pharma) or “the Jews” of exploiting or even inventing the Covid pandemic.
At the same time, the growing QAnon movement in France has been encouraged by — and also now threatens to supplant — more traditional and indigenous purveyors of paranoia.
Alain Soral, a former official of the far-Right Rassemblement National, runs a website called Égalité et Réconciliation, which has tried for years to unite white working class people and migrants with extravagant allegations of a Jewish plot to control the world. He is closely associated with the comedian, Dieudonné, who has several convictions for making anti-Semitic jokes and baseless accusations.
Several months ago, Alain Soral embraced QAnon. So did what’s left of the once-great French evening newspaper, France-Soir, now reduced to a website without journalists which propagates conspiracy theories about Covid. It is supplemented by another website, DéQodeurs, which spreads QAnon fantasies.
The people who visit these sites — les Qanonistes — are described by a French police investigator as a sponge for a range of other conspiracy theories and theorists. “They exist in a plot-obsessed bubble which includes radical Gilets Jaunes and Covid-deniers,” my source said. “Their profile now overlaps closely with the word of Dieudonné and Soral”.
One of the leading online propagators of QAnonist ideology in France is a man who calls himself Leonard Sojli, who posts an online debate each week featuring conspiracy-theorists of the extreme Left and extreme nationalist and racist Right. The “debate” also sometimes extends to the most abstruse QAnon allegations, such as a “conspiracy” by the satanic “elites” to extract the blood of children to create an anti-ageing drug called “adrenochrome” (actually just a form of adrenalin).
Tristan Mendès France, a French writer and filmmaker who studies and combats conspiracy theories, says the French branch of the “Q” movement remains marginal but is still “toxic”.
And it has gained a foothold. Marie Peltier, a Belgian writer and lecturer on “complotisme” believes the proliferation of outlandish conspiracy theories in all democratic countries is a symptom of a 21st century crisis of identity and belief. “The old 20th century ideas (both political and religious) no longer have the same hold on people,” she said. “We are struggling to find a new overarching narrative which brings people together. Conspiracy theories fill the vacuum.”
Antoine Bristielle makes a similar point. He says the key is the collapse of confidence in democratic institutions — from parliaments to the media. “There is a kind of logic in all this,” he says. “If you’ve lost confidence in such institutions, you are no longer ready to believe what they tell you and you seize on alternative narratives which reject and blacken the institutions.”
There is, however, a French exceptionalism – even in conspiratorial thinking. In the United States, conspiracy theories are mostly associated with devout religious belief and radical forms of patriotism. They are mostly confined to the far political Right.
In France, they range from the far-Left to the far-Right and sometimes unite them. They are a symptom of the collapse of widespread religious belief and observance, but also the collapse in support for traditional political ideologies and parties from Communism to socialism and Gaullist conservatism.
The relationship between populism and “complotisme” also differs from country to country. In the United States, Donald Trump aligned himself with and even promoted belief in “plots against the people”. In Britain, the Johnson government – though not always scrupulous with the truth – does not indulge in such fantasies. It promotes other populist themes – Brexit, migration – to help retain the support of many of the kinds of people attracted to wilder, anti-establishment narratives in France.
In France, even the “official” extremes of far Right and far Left – represented by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – have been wrong-footed by the rise of conspiratorial populism such as the Gilets Jaunes and parts of the Anti-Pass Movement. They try to shun the wilder theories while praising the protests. That is a difficult balance to maintain. The “complotistes” increasingly reject them as part of the “political establishment”.
In the United States, large parts of the population now appear to exist in separate realities. France is not yet at that point. But as Antoine Bristielle points out, France is also divided between people who may be critical of the Government but accept the democratic system and those who believe that elections and democratic institutions are a farce or a plot.
Their numbers are perhaps not yet great enough to undermine or skew next year’s presidential election. But the longer-term trend is, as the junior interior minister Marlène Schiappa says, “deeply worrying”.