February 22, 2021 by Andrew W M Smith
These might be the interesting times that people warned us about… I was approached by a journalist to talk about the way that conspiracism (and in particular the QAnon conspiracy) had developed in France in recent months (with the resulting article published by France24 here) and then shortly after by another (with the Vice article pubished here). It struck me that in the context of formulating responses to those journalists, it would make sense to record this in longer form. In short, conspiracism still seems to me a form of secular mysticism, in which people can dissolve themselves and find reassurance in a chaotic world. As Karen Douglas et al. define it, conspiracies “attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” The reassurance behind those ultimate causes is not neutral, however, and frequent connections to antisemitism in particular make me recoil at the wider success of such theories.
In talking about the emergence of QAnon as a trend in France, I spoke about how the conspiracy spoke to a wider trend of distrust in authority. That could refer to political, scientific or academic authority, really, and I think that the QAnon conspiracy speaks to all of those instincts. In very recent history in France, we’ve had the Gilets Jaunes protest movement in 2018/19 which was decentralised, fairly diffuse in terms of demands (except for the fact that elites were corrupt, and the people were not being listened to), and also largely channelled through Facebook. It skirted direct political affiliation, though plenty tried to court it from across the political spectrum. In addition, prominent trials of politicians and aides (from Fillon and ’emplois fictifs’, to the Benalla scandal around Macron, and also Sarkozy’s corruption trial or even Balladur facing accusations of kickbacks and influence peddling) have contributed to that sort of narrative. Then, all through last year, Didier Raoult (the Marseille doctor with the ‘miracle cure’) became a figurehead for a questioning of government responses to COVID (not an explicitly political one, but as a symbol of suspicion around state COVID responses, reinforced by that distrust of elites). That met wider popular dissatisfaction with lockdowns and curfews, as well as channelling a trend of anti-vax and ‘alternative’ medicine sentiment in France (including things like opposition to 5G, as with the recent march in Lyon). All of that relates only to the last couple of years, but can help explain how narratives of suspicion and distrust of authority can take on such force when woven together.
France, like all societies, has its share of conspiracies, though in terms of dissemination, media sources like DéQodeurs and FranceSoir (a once respectable newspaper, which went under and the name of which is now being used to peddle a wider range of more scurrilous content) have been important, as has the success of the ‘Hold-up’ documentary. Clearly the prominence of American media sources (and international commentary on its recent political travails) raises the profile of many American issues, and there is also a direct Francophone route through Québecois engagement with North American media. Beyond that, though, the themes of the conspiracy relating to elite scandal resonate clearly, and the gamification angle remains a hook for people to engage through social media and online sources (especially during a period of increased isolation, like at the moment).
In general, I don’t see the existence or popularity of QAnon in France as constituting an immediate political threat – I don’t see it imminently generating a party or candidates for election, for example – but instead as a symptom of a wider decay in political culture (and I don’t limit that to France, by any means). For me the danger it represents is socio-cultural, undermining faith in the probity of the political institutions of parliamentary democracy, the scientific institutions which help research and improve our lives, and the nature of truth and honesty in ordinary discourse. In and of itself, the conspiracy does not spell the death knell for any of these, though it underlines the importance of defending democratic institutions and should remind us that democracy is not a passive spectator sport. I think it is right that the French state has commissioned MIVILUDES to examine the threat posed to the Republic by this trend.
In uncertain political times and moments of profound change (as COVID has surely been), I think it is a function of reassurance to cling to the idea that someone or something is controlling events, and that control can be wrested back from them. My real worry with this particular QAnon trend is the way that some of its more outlandish claims relate to the blood libel, and the clear way in which some American participants have circulated things like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in support of the QAnon conspiracy. As with the discredited antisemitic Protocols, translation and republishing generated a conspiratorial force which saw it become an international sensation. I worry that this type of conspiracy springs from the same impulse and I think we should be watchful of its potential to coarsen political discourse and envenom broader sociocultural interactions. We are barely a month past Holocaust Memorial Day and I think it behoves all of us to confront and challenge antisemitism and the climates of fear and manipulation which feed these execrable ideas.