The set of conspiracies, known as QAnon, which started in the United States in 2017, has crossed the Atlantic, coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic. It has found an audience in France, where people are increasingly sceptical of the government in an uncertain time.
QAnon is a decentralised movement of followers of Q, an anonymous entity who claims to have high-level (Q-level) security clearance at the White House. Q publishes cryptic messages (Q-drops) that followers have interpreted to show that a cabal of elites are allegedly running a global sex trafficking ring, and are plotting to overthrow president Donald Trump and the US government, with help from the so-called 'deep state'.
French QAnon websites and social media groups started appearing at the end of 2019. French journalist Chine Labbe, the Europe editor of News Guard, which published a report on the rise of QAnon in Europe, talks about the appeal of the American-focused conspiracy theory in France.
RFI: How has QAnon made it to France? It is so US-centric—what is the appeal?
Chine Labbe: There were articles early on about the fact that the deep state is actually a worldwide instrument and that, yes it is led by the Democrats in the US, but that government leaders around the world were acting as puppets of the deep state - the deep state being a sprawling group of elites that spreads much more widely than just within the US borders.
So the French president Emmanuel Macron is described as a puppet of the deep state; so is Angela Merkel in Germany.
That's how you bring in the attention and the interest of the French people.
RFI: How much is the French QAnon narrative organic to France, and how much is it translating what those in the US are saying?
CL: It's hard to say, but we have the impression that it is more about promoting QAnon abroad, because we've seen YouTube channels that are based in the US, but that are translating into many European languages. We have seen that it found its way to France through French-speaking Canada, and the connection with the language.
Interestingly, the content on QAnon sites in the past few weeks has been all about the US elections, with detailed allegations of fraud. I didn't think that that would make it to France and to Europe, because it's so detailed. So that's been surprising. Behind the
But I think right now French people are so drawn to conspiracies, they're looking for answers. So everything that's going feed this idea that we're being lied to that they're not telling us the truth is going work, even when it's about the tiny details of the US elections, a system that is very hard to understand for us French people.
RFI: Studies have shown that a part of the French public is very susceptible to conspiracy theories, and a relatively large proportion of people are sceptical of vaccines, for example. What is it about France that makes it ripe for a conspiracy theory like QAnon?
CL: We have a long history of distrust in institutions and mainstream media, and right now with the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertainty around it, we know that distrust is at an all-time high. I think that QAnon benefited from this, because at the heart of this set of conspiracies you have this idea that you're not being told the truth.
And we are at a time where people are not trusting the media and are not trusting their government, because they have seen them change their minds on what to do in the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people say, 'But look, they changed their mind on masks, so they're lying, they're hiding the truth'.
So at a time where you have this uncertainty, it's the perfect soil for conspiracies to gain traction and to attract more people. And all conspiracies, all narratives that reinforce that idea that we're being lied to, are gaining popularity in France.
On these sites you see both US election-related misinformation, but also misinformation about the virus and about vaccines. They're peddling, for example, Hold-Up, this documentary about Covid-19, which doesn't introduce many new myths or new misinformation, but is a very well-packaged set of all the myths that have been circulating since the very beginning of the pandemic.
It carries some emotional points, which are not false per se, on what it is like to wear a mask when you're a kid, or when you're a woman giving birth - all questions that are legitimate. But it mixes that with a lot of false information on the virus having been created by the Pasteur institute, for example, which is something that has been debunked.
It leaves you with this impression, again, that we're being lied to, and so of course the QAnon followers have seen something in that film that is very close to the type of narratives that they were sharing before.
RFI: The talk of elites running things and being out of touch with regular people has echoes with the Yellow Vest movement, which started in 2018, to push back against the French government and the elites in cities, out of touch with regular French people. Is there an intersection between Yellow Vest supporters and QAnon followers in France?
CL: When we when we published our report, France had two subsets of Facebook groups that that were particularly interested in the Q narratives: pro-Yellow Vest groups, and groups supporting Didier Raoult, the French doctor who's been hailed as a hero in conspiracy circles because he supported the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19, even when the French government was not supporting it.
These are not two groups that we might have thought of, or looked at to begin with, and it shows how diverse Q followers are. I think it would be a mistake to think that it's just limited to far-right groups. It's a catch and-all meta conspiracy that allows so many people from so many different backgrounds to find something that resonates with them.
Maybe the only thing that ties them all together is that they are dissatisfied, they are not trusting the government and they feel left. That encompasses a lot of different people.
RFI: Given the appeal of QAnon in France, it seems that people in power should be paying attention…
CL: It remains fringe in France, but we have to bear in mind that in the US it started in October, 2017, and today a Q follower has been elected to Congress. That took three years.
In France, QAnon arrived in early 2020. Even if it is fringe, we shouldn't dismiss it. We are 18 months away from the next presidential elections, and conspiracy theories might become part it. So we might want to think about how we're going to fight that wave of misinformation.
RFI: France deals with speech and information online differently than the United States–there is a lot less tolerance for hate speech, for example. How might France go about addressing QAnon?
CL: It's very complicated, and a lot of the fight is being led by the social media platforms, not by governments. So when Facebook, Twitter and Youtube that decide what they're doing against QAnon.
So the French government can pass new laws. But the big power lies with the tech platforms, so they are now taking action against misinformation. But the problem is the groups are savvy and they either change platforms or find ways to continue publishing content that escapes the platforms' algorithms.
So running after the latest conspiracies is very hard, and that's why we believe that the this needs to be fought preemptively, with media literacy and education on how to identify misinformation and who is spreading it.
RFI: How good are French people being media literate and identifying misinformation? Are the French sceptical or better educated than others to figure it out?
CL: No one is immune against conspiracy theories. It would be a mistake to think that people who are educated or have a certain access to the news will not be affected. That's not true. Conspiracy theories are not just read or shared in bubbles.
In France we've seen doctors share the Hold-Up documentary! So no one is intrinsically protected against conspiracies.
Often the people spreading the lies are good at finding ways to connect the dots. And when you're worried and looking for answers in an uncertain time, that's appealing.
If you find an explanation, even if it's extravagant, if it tells you that everything is part of a plan put in place by elites – that might sound weird, but it gives you some sort of understanding and reassurance.
So everyone should be working on developing the tools to fight this wave of misinformation, because no one is immune.