QAnon Is So Big in France That Even the Government Is Worried

Authorities are investigating what kind of threat the conspiracy movement poses.
February 22, 2021, 1:36pm
An attendee holds signs a sign of the letter "Q" before the start of a rally with U.S. President Donald Trump in Lewis Center, Ohio, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018.
An attendee holds signs a sign of the letter "Q" before the start of a rally with U.S. President Donald Trump in Lewis Center, Ohio, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. (Photographer: Maddie McGarvey/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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The QAnon conspiracy theory, long associated with U.S. politics, jumped the pond and took hold in Europe during the pandemic.

While it’s been dismissed by many as a fringe movement, authorities in France are now so concerned about the rise of QAnon that law enforcement is investigating what kind of threat it poses

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A new report from the police and the state agency responsible for tackling sectarian movements, Mission Interministérielle de Vigilence et de Lutte Contre Les Dérives Sectaires’ (MIVILUDES), is due to be finalized by the end of this week.

It will be handed to the Minister for Citizenship Marlène Schiappa who last month said publicly that the government “had its eye on” QAnon, telling TV channel France 3 that the development of “new conspiracist groups” on French soil is “very worrying.”

A new report from the police and the state agency responsible for tackling sectarian movements, Mission Interministérielle de Vigilence et de Lutte Contre Les Dérives Sectaires’ (MIVILUDES), is due to be finalized by the end of this week.

It will be handed to the Minister for Citizenship Marlène Schiappa who last month said publicly that the government “had its eye on” QAnon, telling TV channel France 3 that the development of “new conspiracist groups” on French soil is “very worrying.”

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But it emerged last week that the threat had since escalated further, with French newspaper Le Figaro reporting that MIVILUDES, has received around 15 reports over recent weeks related to QAnon. The agency said the rise in the number of reports was “highly concerning” in an internal memo viewed by Le Figaro.

It’s easy to believe that QAnon is a uniquely American problem. QAnon followers played a central role in the Capitol riots last month, and the movement is obsessed with former President Donald Trump and other U.S. political figures. But the news from France highlights that despite its U.S.-centric mythology, QAnon has morphed into a catch-all conspiracy theory that has obsessed people in dozens of countries around the globe.

That’s because the core mythos of QAnon — that a group of elites is running a secret child sex trafficking ring — is a decades-old conspiracy belief that has been rehashed and promoted multiple times in different countries.

It also comes at a time in France when the majority of people believe their political system is entirely or partially broken. That disillusionment presents a huge opportunity for conspiracy theories to fill the void left by trust in government. During the pandemic anti-vaxx conspiracies surged in popularity, and those pushing QAnon quickly attached themsevlves to those groups.

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QAnon first made its way to France through French-speaking Canada, according to Chine Labbe, the Europe editor of News Guard, a service that rates the reliability of news websites, which published a report on the rise of QAnon in Europe.

“Part of the reason for the growth of the conspiracy is the way that it speaks to a wider trend of distrust in authority,” Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester told VICE News. “That could refer to political, scientific, or academic authority, really, and I think that the QAnon conspiracy speaks to all of those instincts.”

Smith pointed out that QAnon shares some similarities with the Yellow Vest movement, which came to prominence in 2018, and sought economic justice through petitions and mass protests. 

“It was decentralized, 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 channeled through Facebook. It skirted direct political affiliation, though plenty tried to court it from across the political spectrum.”

As the pandemic took hold last year, QAnon morphed to become a catch-all conspiracy movement around the world, merging with anti-5G and anti-vaxx conspiracies that had taken hold across Europe.

In France, Didier Raoult, a Marseille-based doctor who claimed to have a “miracle cure” for COVID, became a figurehead for questioning the French government’s responses to the pandemic. He is now cited as QAnon followers as a valued source of information. And general suspicion about the government grew as people protested against lockdowns and curfews.

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“[This] helps explain how narratives of suspicion and distrust of authority can take on such force when woven together,” Smith said.

Quantifying the number of people who believe in QAnon in Europe — as in the U.S. — is difficult. Experts tend to believe that the U.K. and Germany have the biggest concentration of QAnon believers in the region. 

But the numbers in France are not insignificant, and according to Tristan Mendès France, an expert on conspiracist movements at Paris-Diderot University, there are a few hundred thousand QAnon followers in the country

In the U.S., the FBI has labeled the QAnon movement a potential domestic terror threat, and it’s clear that by commissioning the police report, French authorities have similar concerns. 

But for Smith, QAnon in France does not pose a threat of violence or political disruption, so much as a threat to democracy.

“I don't see the conspiracy theory as constituting an immediate political threat but I see it as a symptom of a wider decay in political culture,” Smith said. “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.”

But other experts point out that the lockdown has meant QAnon supporters have not been able to fully express their dissatisfaction with the government — and as lockdowns end, that could all change.

“To date, the small number of adherents, coupled with public health restrictions, has meant that the coalition has not been terribly impactful,” Emily Flore St. Denny, an expert on French politics at the University of Copenhagen, told VICE News.

“It is not impossible to imagine, though, that some aspire to larger-scale disruption similar to some of the more fractious protests on the fringes of the Yellow Vest movement,” Denny added.