OPINION: A new tidal wave of disinformation is dividing France and there's no easy fix

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OPINION: A new tidal wave of disinformation is dividing France and there's no easy fix
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France, like the United States, is a country which adores conspiracy theories, writes John Lichfield, but what is different about the new onslaught of bullshit is its relentless effrontery and the people willing to shovel it. But what's the solution?


Did you hear? The historic eastern French regions of Alsace and Lorraine are to be secretly handed back to Germany. Did you hear? Emmanuel Macron has signed a treaty which places France under UN control and opens the flood-gates to mass migration from Africa?

Did you hear? Brigitte Macron’s salary and expenses have been raised to €550,000 a year. Did you hear? France is to share its permanent seat on the UN security council with Germany?

France, like the United States, is a country which adores conspiracy theories. There is even a French word for it – “complotisme”. There are also several, newly-minted French translations for “fake news” , including “infox”, a blend of “info” and “intox” (misleading information). The fact that “infox” sounds like In Fox (News) is just coincidental.

What is different about the current onslaught of bullshit  in France is its relentless effrontery and the public profile of those willing to shovel it. Fake news on social media and on Russian-controlled news sites is now, sadly, predictable.

It fuels, though does not fully explain, the anti-metropolitan and anti-political insurrection by the Gilet Jaunes. The scandal of Brigitte Macron’s “secret” salary rise has been repeated over and over on yellow vest sites and Facebook pages. What is the First Lady’s true salary from the state? Rien. Zero. Nothing.

In the last couple of weeks, however, France has seen a new phenomenon, a kind of Gallic Trumpism – a willingness by high-profile politicians on the edge of the mainstream to spout absolute nonsense.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right Rassemblement National, says that an anodyne Franco-German treaty signed this week is an “act of treason” which will “place Alsace” under German “guardianship” and offer Berlin a share in France’s nuclear deterrent and permanent seat on the UN security council.

Something similar was already alleged by Ms Le Pen’s rival and occasional ally on the far right, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. There is not a word in the treaty, not a comma, not a vague footnote, to justify such claims.

The Treaty of Aachen calls for greater Franco-German cross-border cooperation in Alsace. It says that Paris will support Berlin’s efforts to win a UN security council seat of its own.

Confronted with the dull text, Jordan Bardella, the man who will lead Le Pen’s party in the European elections in May, says that his leader has a “right to diverge”. That sounds like the Trump White House assertion that politicians are allowed not just alternative opinions but “alternative facts”.

It is new for the cautious Madame Le Pen to be caught out in such a manifest falsehood. She may have been desperate to keep up with Dupont-Aignan, who is rising in the polls, or with the Gilets Jaunes social media, where a thousand conspiracy theories thrive.

It could be a mistake. Or it could be an opening salvo in a new French, post-Gilet Jaunes “info war” where muddled or dull reality no longer places any constraint on claims which damage an opponent or advance an agenda. 

Britons – and especially British journalists, like me – have little reason to smirk. Some of our colleagues, notably Boris Johnson in Brussels in the 1990s, trafficked in fake news long before the phrase was invented.

Twas ever thus? No, not really. Boris was a pioneer in conscious and calculated bullshit, in the “serious” press at least. Absurd and mendacious claims now crowd the mental airwaves in Britain daily. Ditto, Italy. Ditto, Belgium. Ditto, almost everywhere.

In a disturbing book published last year, the French philosopher Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, warned that the targeted mendacity of extremist websites and populist politicians was more destructive than the kind of unreliable or slanted reporting or political discourse which has always existed.

In La Faiblesse du Vrai (the weakness of truth), she said we were entering an era of “generalised lies” where the “true and false can no longer be separated…and the word truth no longer has any meaning.” In such a world, she said, the common language needed for the survival of democracy – the ability to live together – will vanish.

The old dominant media certainties may have been limited or biased but they at least provided the material for some form of rational discourse. They are not coming back, whatever nostalgics like me might want or think. We live in a global village and we risk becoming global village idiots.

It is up to individuals to make their own choices of what they read and what they believe. There is still plenty of sensible stuff around. Whatever the Gilets Jaunes may say, the French mainstream media, both written and broadcast, is more varied and more independent and, yes, more truthful than it was 20 years ago.

There are also admirable columns and services in France dedicated to fighting bullshit. There is AFP’s There is also Le Monde’s

Look at them. Make up your own mind. If you’re prepared to do so, you’re not part of the problem.

John Lichfield is a journalist based in France. He is the former France correspondent and foreign editor for The Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield





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