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

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?

OPINION: A new tidal wave of disinformation is dividing France and there's no easy fix
Photo: Twitter/The Local

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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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.