In two waves of the coronavirus that have led to over 68,000 deaths, France has undergone two “confinements,” with all non-essential businesses shut down and restrictions, including curfews and closures, that exceeded any imposed in the United States. Like in many other parts of the world, discontent with the government’s measures has gradually grown and, along with it, conspiracy thinking around COVID-19.
The force of this denialism was made evident by the impact of the documentary Hold-Up, released online on November 11. The film was partially financed by contributions from over 13,000 people through two crowdsourcing campaigns promoted by Ema Krusi, a Swiss designer and far-right figure noted for her support of QAnon. Originally available on Vimeo, Hold-Up was later removed from the platform for spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 and transferred to a website noted for its right-wing and conspiracy-minded films; it has since been uploaded to various other sites, and its trailer is available on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Its success is undeniable: in its first two weeks online Hold-Up was viewed 6 million times. Its presence on multiple platforms makes a final tallying of its viewership all but impossible. It continues to exert outsized influence on the French public and has been endorsed by popular figures like the actors Juliette Binoche and Sophie Marceau.
Hold-Up, which clocks in at two hours and forty-nine minutes, consists almost entirely of talking heads presented as experts who make allegations and insinuations about hidden truths about the pandemic that a mysterious “they” are hiding. These supposed experts are overwhelmingly people with no expertise in epidemiology: nurses, pharmacists, gynecologists, homeopaths, and cab drivers. Those who do have a connection to epidemiology are figures either marginal, discredited, or controversial, like the hydroxychloriquine advocate Didier Raoult.
Their case is standard coronavirus denialism: COVID-19 is no worse than the flu; the number of cases is wildly exaggerated; masks accomplish nothing positive and are a political, not a medical, initiative; in fact, they do more harm than good; shutdowns prevent no deaths from COVID-19 and in fact cause an increase in deaths from other diseases, which go untreated for fear of going to the hospital; the surest treatment, hydroxychloroquine, was kept from the public. In short, everything public officials and mainstream media outlets say about the pandemic is a fraud.
Beyond this boilerplate denialism, the international conspiracy laid out in Hold-Up is vast and tentacular, with multiple but convergent aims. The virus did not pass from animals to humans, since that isn’t possible, as we are falsely told. Rather it was produced at the Institut Pasteur, a nonprofit infectious disease research center in France. The World Health Organization has allegedly issued guidelines that block autopsies of patients who supposedly died of COVID. Bill Gates’s international inoculation drive is also part of the globalist plot. Planning for the pandemic—not for confronting it, but for spreading it—was carried out at sessions of the World Economic Forum and other international groups. 5G, too, is part of the plan to give us COVID. The aim of all these diverse plots is the “Great Reset”—the name of the World Economic Forum’s drive to rebuild the global economy in the wake of COVID-19, which denialists see as a blueprint to eradicate individual freedom under a New World Order. The French press has debunked almost every claim made in the film, and the Institut Pasteur has sued the filmmakers for defamation. And yet the conspiracy theories thrive.
COVID-19 denialism is one facet of a broader right-wing populism on the rise around the world. Though its national manifestations bear a family resemblance, its forms and constituent forces are colored by the political histories of the countries in which it spreads. In the United States, the ground on which denialism has grown was laid out in Richard Hofstadter’s two classic works, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in America Politics. Hold-Up, meanwhile, is heir to both a conspiracy mindset that goes back to the revolutionary era and the more recent emergence of anti-elite politics during the Yellow Vest protests that began in 2018.
During the Great Fear of 1789, mere weeks after the seizing of the Bastille, peasants throughout France attacked homes and chateaux of the nobility, inspired by rumors of an aristocratic plot. The first lasting conspiracy theory of the era appeared with the publication in 1797–1798 of Augustin Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, which made the case that the Revolution itself was a Masonic plot fomented by the Illuminati. Barruel’s thesis had a long life, surviving well into the twentieth century. Anti-Masonic plots would be joined and, in some cases, combined in the nineteenth century with anti-Catholic, anti-Jesuit, and, most importantly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. All these shadowy forces shared a trait in common: they stood against the people of France.
In 1845 Alphonse Toussenel, a follower of Proudhon, published a lengthy book whose title expressed its entire program: Les juifs, rois de l’epoque (“The Jews, Kings of the Epoch”). For a portion of the far left, all the ills of capitalism could be ascribed to the Jews. But anti-Semitism was even more central to the right, for whom every evil event in France was attributed to Jewish plots and control. Edouard Drumont’s seminal La France Juive (“Jewish France”) appeared in 1886 and went through 140 printings in its first two years of publication. The idea of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy survived both the Dreyfus affair and the mass murder of 70,000 French Jews during the Holocaust. (Holocaust denialism, in fact, became central the far right.) As late as 1969 the purported disappearance of French women from changing rooms in Jewish-owned shops in Orleans was said to be the result of a white-slave plot run by Jewish merchants. Today, those held responsible for the COVID pandemic are globalists who pull the strings at the highest levels to intervene at the most local.
The more proximate cause for the popularity of Hold-Up can be found in the cry of distress and rage that fueled the Yellow Vest movement. When the left was still a vital force, fury at elite cruelty and neglect was channeled into class politics. With the collapse of the Socialist and Communist parties, that fury has become an inchoate rejection of politics and politicians as such, and of experts and expertise in particular. President Emmanuel Macron and his regime of highly educated and undisguisedly arrogant technocrats came to office determined to guide France into his vision of the twenty-first century, with little concern for the lives and livelihoods of the common run of the people. His gratuitous use of American business terms has become symbolic of his brand of neoliberalism. The Yellow Vests emerged in 2018 in opposition to an increase in fuel prices at the same time that taxes on the wealthy were being rolled back. Macron’s attempt at pension reform in late 2019 led to further massive protests.
The social viciousness of the era was embodied in the prosecution later that year of the leadership of the mobile phone company Orange, formerly the state-owned France Telecom, over a brutal restructuring of the corporation that resulted in thirty-five workers committing suicide. Three leaders of Orange were found guilty and sentenced to short prison terms and fines. Though the company’s harassment of its employees occurred well before Macron’s accession to power, the details of the case dovetailed perfectly with his demonstrated lack of concern for the needs of French workers.
The political system, as far as a large percentage of the French populace is concerned, is rigged and no party can fix it; neither the parties of the right nor the left were welcome at the roundabouts where the Yellow Vests gathered. On the left, La France insoumise has replaced the formerly dominant Communists and Socialists, and the traditional conservative right in France has been eclipsed by the Le Pen family and its Rassemblement national. Both are anti-European. Both are more populist than anything else. Both are alert to the activities of forces that allegedly stand against France.
In Hold-Up, the fact that a nurse or a pharmacist or a midwife or a cabbie possess little knowledge of epidemiology or public health is all the more reason to trust them, since they are not part of the corrupt power structure that has turned its back on those outside elite circles.
According to a Gallup World Poll, the French are “the most skeptical people in the world about the safety of vaccines.” Slightly more than 10 percent of French respondents to a poll said they would be vaccinated immediately upon a COVID-19 vaccine becoming available, while surveys show that only 40 percent would consent to have one at all. It is among the supporters of both Rassemblement national and La France insoumise that the greatest percentage of those who would not be vaccinated can be found.
There is little doubt that the undercurrent of anti-Americanism (alongside a love of American culture) that has always played a role in the French left and right has led to suspicion of vaccines developed by Pfizer, just as anti-German feeling plays a role in lack of trust for the vaccine developed by BioNTech. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France insoumise, has called for France to purchase its vaccines from Russia, China, and Cuba, and to provide funding to the Institut Pasteur so it can develop a “French formula.” Resistance to vaccination, combined with the incompetence of the government, has resulted in a painfully slow rollout: as of January 12, only .29 percent of the French population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Hold-Up is thus an important expression of French political culture today. A film that justifies mistrust of the political class, of science, of business, and of philanthropy as part of a nebulous conspiracy could not help but draw a huge viewership and attract support at a time when politics and politicians no longer appear to offer a way out of the country’s problems. For the COVID skeptics, the enemy is omnipresent and will stop at nothing to maintain its power over people’s lives, up to and including the manufacturing of a pandemic.
Mitchell Abidor is a translator and writer. His article on the Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Dissent.