Eight of the most ridiculous ‘fake news’ stories about France

From no go zones to email bans, there have been a few stories about France over the years that have turned out to be a little fake, shall we say. Here's a look at a few of the more memorable ones.

Eight of the most ridiculous 'fake news' stories about France
Photo: Screengrab The Local

While everyone's fretting about “fake news” all of a sudden, bogus stories are nothing new. France and the French have been the victim of a fair few dodgy stories over the years. Including…

1. 'Paris no go zones for non-Muslims and police'

Fox News famously made an enemy of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo when in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, it produced a report backed up by a so-called expert that stated parts of the French capital were no-go zones for police and non-Muslims.

Those so-called no go zones included the area around Barbès, just north of Gare du Nord, as well as Belleville, both multi-cultural areas with high immigrant populations, but certainly not areas where police and non-Muslim refuse to set foot, as Fox claimed.

The US channel's news report was fiercely derided by the French media and prompted Anne Hidalgo to press charges against Fox News for defamation.

“I will not accept insults against our city and its people,” Hidalgo said. “What's in question here is not fun or… a bad joke, it's lies.”

Fox News later apologized for “some regrettable errors” in its dodgy report and The Local produced a counter report on the real no-go zones in the French capital.

1b. Part two of fake no-go zones

The myth reared its head once again in February 2017, after protests and outbreaks of violence following the alleged police rape of a young black man Theo in the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois.

Following the trouble British tabloid the Daily Express and notorious American anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller decided that there were now 20 no-go zones, including the historic and tourist friendly Marais quarter in central Paris, and even quiet northern cities Lille and Rouen. 

Incredulous French people took to Twitter to put them back in their place, debunking the exaggerated reports that the beautiful Marais was now a no go zone. The Local pitched in to set the record straight too


2. ‘Milk in Paris costs €6 a litre and nappies are free’

Respected journalist Janine di Giovanni caused a rumpus in France when she published an article in Newsweek in which she lambasted the state of the country blaming its tax and social policies.

But various claims made in the article caused uproar, notably her assertion that half a litre of milk in Paris “cost almost $4”, meaning a litre is almost $8, so around six euros.

Di Giovanni also wrongly claimed, “Diapers were free and free nurseries existed in every neighbourhood.”

Her article provoked both ire and derision from the French government.

Bloggers for Le Monde took her statements apart piece by piece, ridiculing Di Giovanni’s claim over the price of milk, which they, like many others, pointed out costs around €1.30 a litre.

So did the Twittersphere.

“According to Newsweek, nappies are free in France. I want the address,” said one Tweeter sarcastically.

And The Local’s readers: “Free nappies and crèches? Where? Milk at 6 Euros a litre? Where?” said one reader.

3. 'France is doomed'

Indeed di Giovanni’s cover article for Newsweek was titled “The Fall of France” and falls into a whole category of articles that could perhaps be labelled under “fake news” if the definition were broadened to include iffy predictions.

These are the kind of articles, that have mostly appeared in the right-wing British or American press over recent decades, that almost gleefully predict that France, with its generous welfare state and costly health system, is doomed.

For example in November 2012 The Economist magazine launched a hand grenade in Paris with its cover story titled: “The time-bomb at the heart of Europe – A 14 page special report on France”.

Over four and a half years later that time bomb has still not gone off. OK, it might not have been defused either, given the economic problems France is still facing, but the point is that articles suggesting France is in ruins or “France is in freefall” as US TV channel CNN did in January 2013 have proved way over the top.

Every year I read how France is doomed and every summer I go there and it’s still there, were the paraphrased words of one UK writer in response to all the doom-mongering. 

4. The French are fleeing France to get away from crippling taxes


Many may scoff at the idea that all the headlines about wealthy French fleeing France to escape the greedy Gallic tax man should be classed in our “fake news” list, especially given that regular surveys point to a rise in the number of rich French nationals quitting the country.

Why we’ve included it here is because the reports have not only been greatly exaggerated but the tax motivation for quitting France greatly overplayed.

“It’s a myth [that the French are leaving France because of taxes] said Fabienne Petit director of international activities at French firm Humanis, which works with French expatriates in the area of health cover and insurance.

“It’s a real cliché to say that all French people are going abroad for only fiscal reasons. In fact only 17 percent of people leave for financial reasons, so we need to put an end to this myth,” Petit told The Local in 2013.

The idea the French are fleeing taxes could perhaps be blamed on Hollande’s famous attempt to impose a 75 percent tax rate shortly after being elected, or on Gerard Depardieu, who quit France for Belgium in a huff apparently over his tax bill.

Cue articles in the British press about how French businessmen were all heading to London.

In the end Hollande's tax rate was never imposed on tax payers – it was levied on companies instead and scrapped after a year, while Depardieu later denied taxes had been the reason for his self-imposed exile.

5. France bans work emails after 6pm

The first round of hysteria began in 2014 after a Guardian article stated that the French government had essentially banned one million employees from looking at work emails after 6pm.

The news made sensational articles across the English speaking press about the work-shy French. The Independent ran with “No after-work-emails please. French ordered to ignore the boss after 6pm”.

Unfortunately for French workers, none of this was true.

The original French article was about an agreement between employers’ federations and trade unions in the technology sector to protect the 35 hour week and would only affect 250, 000 workers

The news got so out of hand that a French minister and us here at The Local France needed to step in to set the story straight.

And then, as if the Anglo press hadn’t learned a lesson, practically the same story reappeared last year. Headlines such as “Weekend work emails are now illegal in France” and “France passes law banning weekend work emails” once again appeared.

This time Buzzfeed had the job of setting the record straight, pointing out a new law,that came into force earlier this month, simply allowed workers to negotiate with bosses a “right to disconnect”. There was no nationwide ban.

6. France is covertly stocking the smallpox virus

In 2002, The Washington Post caused anger in Paris when it reported that France, along with North Korea, Russia and Iraq, was secretly storing the deadly smallpox virus.

The article came from a report from a US intelligence official, who did not actually describe any evidence that France had secret stocks of the virus – a known biological weapon.

Bernard Valero, a foreign ministry spokesman “strongly denied” the allegations and said “France scrupulously respects its international engagements.”

“Therefore, France does not possess any stocks of smallpox in its laboratories, either civilian or military.''

He said researchers have only used “authorized animal samples, which are not dangerous to man''.

7. France is in collusion with Saddam Hussein

In 2003, many US media outlets reported that the French government was aiding Saddam Hussein’s regime by providing passports to Iraqi officials.

Along with similar news stories about French cooperation with Iraq, this prompted a virulent reaction in America, where there was anger at France's refusal to join the Iraq war. French fries were famously renamed “Freedom Fries” by some and Americans boycotted French wine.

This led the French ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, to write a letter to White House, the State Department and the US Congress protesting the “false information” provided by dubious “anonymous administration officials”.

8. The Eiffel Tower is on fire

Fake news around real or made up terror attacks is a particular problem.

In the aftermath of the 2016 Nice attacks, many questionable reports started appearing in global media. One of the rumours was that Isis had attacked the Eiffel Tower and that it was actually on fire.

What had really happened was that a truck carrying fireworks for Bastille Day had accidentally caught fire and set off near the Eiffel Tower.

The Paris police headquarters were forced to tweet reassurances: “Don’t spread false rumours. No incident at the Eiffel Tower. There was an accident with a truck on the Pont d’Iéna. It has caught fire”

Only last Friday the British newspaper The Daily Mail jumped on reports on Twitter of a double explosion rocking the French city of Marseille. It turned out to be a sonic boom from a fighter jet. 

And some other notable mentions. Tuesday's headline in The Sun newspaper was far from accurate. France isn't planning to give every adult €650 a month, two presidential candidates who polls suggest have little chance of being elected are in favour of a universal income for French citizens.

by Rose Trigg/Ben McPartland

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Could France’s fake news law be used to silence critics?

France is the latest country attempting to fight the scourge of fake news with legislation -- but opponents say the law won't work and could even be used to silence critics.

Could France's fake news law be used to silence critics?

The draft law, designed to stop what the government calls “manipulation of information” in the run-up to elections, will be debated in parliament Thursday with a view to it being put into action during next year's European parliamentary polls.

The idea for the bill came straight from President Emmanuel Macron, who was himself targeted during his 2017 campaign by online rumours that he was gay 
and had a secret bank account in the Bahamas.

Under the law, French authorities would be able to immediately halt the publication of information deemed to be false ahead of elections.

Social networks would have to introduce measures allowing users to flag up false reports, pass their data on such articles to authorities, and make 
public their efforts against fake news.

And the law would authorise the state to take foreign broadcasters off the air if they were attempting to destabilise France — a measure seemingly aimed at Russian state-backed outlet RT in particular.


European governments have struggled to work out how to respond to the fake news phenomenon, not least after accusations of Kremlin meddling in France and the US presidential vote that brought Donald Trump to power.

The British government has set up a “fake news” unit, while Italy has an online service to report false articles and the European Union is working on a 
“code of practice” that would provide guidelines for social media companies.

France wants to go further — though not as far as neighbouring Germany, where social networks face fines of up to 50 million euros ($58 million) under a controversial law which critics say is overly draconian. 

Some opponents fear French authorities could use powers in the new law to block embarrassing or compromising reports.

“It's a step towards censorship,” said Vincent Lanier, head of France's national journalists' union, the SNJ. He labelled the bill “inefficient and potentially dangerous”. 

The government insists measures will be built into the law to protect freedom of speech, with only reports that are “manifestly false” and that have 
gone viral — notably with the help of bots — taken down.

“Reducing freedom of expression is not the idea at all. On the contrary, it's to protect it,” said Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen.

Leaving fake news to spread would be a “direct attack” on journalism, she argued.

But for Jerome Fenoglio, editorial director of Le Monde newspaper, the legislation carries too big a risk of suppressing information in the public 

“Elections should be a time of great freedom — these are periods when important information emerges,” he said, noting as an example the fake jobs 
scandal that torpedoed the campaign of presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon last year.

“We should be worried about an authoritarian regime winning power in France in the future and the methods it might use,” he said.

Arbiters of truth

Others worry the law could backfire by giving extra credibility to reports labelled “fake” by the authorities amongst those convinced the government is 
out to hide the truth. 

Fabrice Epelboin, who teaches media studies at Sciences Po university in Paris, predicts “catastrophic consequences” of the legislation which he says “is already seen as a law of censorship”.

“It will only reinforce a sense of defiance towards the press and politicians who are already very discredited,” he warned.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose followers stand accused of spreading fake news, is among those who have spoken against the bill, asking: “Is France still a democracy if it muzzles its citizens?”

The EU, for its part, has said it does not want to create an Orwellian “ministry of truth” and will not legislate on fake news.

In France, there are also questions about how the law will work in practice. 

Judges will have just 48 hours to rule on an urgent request to take down a report.

Legal expert Vincent Couronne says the law is “not only imperfect and unnecessary, but also dangerous for the peace and diversity of public debate”.

It will turn judges into “arbiters of true and false”, said Patrick Eveno, a media history professor at the Sorbonne university.

As for potentially kicking out foreign media, Fenoglio is deeply uncomfortable with the idea, not least given that Le Monde is blocked in China.

“I cannot defend measures under which it's considered normal to block all kinds of information because it's considered close to a foreign government,” he said.