PARIS — They're not telling us everything. Some things are kept from us. Someone needed this to happen.
As the COVID-19 outbreak quickly spreads, so do conspiracy theories. The virus is killing mostly elderly people? It's a scheme from the government to solve the problem of pension reform. The lockdown? A pretext for a military coup, as anti-government protests were in full swing before the outbreak. The absence of vaccines, treatment or masks? Another conspiracy from the European Union, China, the government or this or that company.
But for a couple of weeks now in France, conspiracy theorists have been focused on just one man: Professor Didier Raoult.
The media coverage and scientific debates concerning the hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine treatments that this doctor uses in the French city of Marseille have sparked a massive movement in the conspiracy theory world.
Why is the treatment, which is supported by many local political figures, not extended to the whole country?
All the details concerning the reservations expressed by the medical sector about the treatment protocol followed by Raoult — the first results didn't receive unanimous support from the scientific community — were not mentioned in the most radical online discussions. Instead, a very different explanation has surged: a conspiracy from the pharmaceutical industry, tainted with strong anti-Semitic overtones.
"Jews can't earn money with that treatment? Might as well terminate it," wrote a user of 4chan/b/, a popular online forum for the English-speaking far right, in a thread pointing out that hydroxychloroquine is inexpensive.
The spread of these theories is not limited to online platforms. Gilbert Collard, a French politician and member of the far-right National Rally, released a podcast on YouTube and also on the party's website in which he picked up many key elements of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus (including its supposed "military" origin), without ever explicitly articulating them.
Historian Valérie Igounet analyzed his speech for the website Conspiracy Watch and concluded that the far-right member of the European Parliament "used well-known conspiracy rhetoric which consists in highlighting supposedly disturbing coincidences." But in the meantime, the politician doesn't mention the many reservations expressed by the medical community on the protocol used by Raoult, or some proven facts — like the classification of chloroquine as a poisonous substance which has nothing to do with the pandemic, since the decision was taken more than a year ago.
Conspiracy theories are also fostered by the government's choices.
"The basis of conspiracy theories is to be sufficiently elliptical, so that everyone can see what they want to behind these theories," says Rudy Reichstadt, the founder of Conspiracy Watch.
Several French politicians have used conspiratorial semantics, more so on the far right of the political spectrum, but also on the far left, which usually express suspicions concerning the pharmaceutical industry. Plenty of allusions to conspiracy theories can also be found on Facebook groups related to the "yellow vests" movement.
These theories are not just multiplying because of the current climate of anxiety: They are also fostered by the government's choices in the management of the epidemic.
Take for instance the fact that the first round of the municipal elections was maintained just before the lockdown. This gave rhetorical "ammunition" to conspiracy theorists who claimed the government was seeking to cause more deaths or, on the contrary, to those who argued the pandemic wasn't serious.
"Chloroquine" is one of France's buzzwords right now — Photo: Joegoauk Goa
For advocates of conspiracy theories, all the criticisms against Professor Raoult and his therapeutic trials are new "evidence" proving them right. If the doctor "upsets" so many, it's probably because he is right. His cheap and simple treatment is only contested because there are supposedly hidden interests at stake.
That reasoning allowed advocates of the so-called "QAnon" theory — which defends the fact that US President Donald Trump is the hero of a secret plot made of "true patriots" — to include professor Raoult's figure in their theses. For them, since Didier Raoult is hated by "the Establishment" like Donald Trump, he must be part of these "unsung heroes". The professor himself has posed as a victim of the Paris-based establishment of health experts.
The criticisms he made in the past about the French medical system have resurfaced today — Russian website Sputnik dug up a 15-year old video of Raoult in which he explains that France is poorly prepared for an epidemic. Misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, which the EU has blamed on Russia, have widely circulated online these past few weeks.
Since Raoult is hated by "the Establishment", he must be part of these "unsung heroes" ...
But with his atypical background and his multiple sensational statements over the years, Raoult also embarrasses even the strongest advocates of conspiracy theories.
Granted, on popular far-right forums like 4chan/b/ou Avenoel, people seem to like his appearance as an old white druid and the statements he made ten years ago as a "climate change skeptic". But Didier Raoult also wrote an op-ed in Le Point in which he criticized the concept of "Français de souche" (native-born French) as a scientific absurdity.
Because of this text, some have called him "cosmopolitan trash" on Avenoel while other conspiracy and anti-Semitic websites have been searching, for several days, links with the Israeli Mossad secret services.
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