By Layli Foroudi
PARIS – Canadian Alexis Cossette-Trudel, who is suspended from Facebook and Twitter for promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, had a message he wanted to send from Canada to France.
The “Freedom convoy” protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates that were starting to block transport links in Canada were striking a blow for freedom and French people should take note, he said in Quebec-accented French.
“The freedom convoy is a festive and exemplary movement,” Cossette-Trudel said in a videocast on France Soir, a COVID-sceptic French online media outlet on Feb. 7.
Five days later, a French “Freedom convoy” – with some people waving Canadian flags – defied a police ban to enter the French capital and snarled traffic around the Arc de Triomphe. The police deployed tear gas and made more than 50 arrests.
Reuters has found some of the loudest online voices coordinating France’s convoy have direct links with Cossette-Trudel and other Canadians, revealing a network of connections between “anti-vaxx” and right-wing groups in the two countries.
To be sure, the Freedom Convoy in France sprang mainly out of homegrown movements, including the “Yellow Vests” whose protests began in 2018, and the people identified in public as its leaders had no direct ties to their peers in Canada.
But the connections identified by Reuters between French and Canadian anti-vaxxers helped to translate the messages and protest tactics circulating among North American anti-vaxxers for French audiences.
It is a connection that, according to some researchers, could move the needle in April’s French presidential election, when anti-vaxxers are likely to be active.
Canadian YouTubers and bloggers, especially those from French-speaking Quebec, are natural intermediaries between North America and France, said Benjamin Tainturier, a researcher with MédiaLab at Sciences Po university in Paris.
“They have French channels [where] they say ‘Look what is happening in the U.S.’, because they are close to the territory, they speak English as a second mother tongue and they know the Youtuber eco-system.”
Cossett-Trudel told Reuters half of his viewership comes from France.
He operates in large part via Radio Quebec, a Francophone platform whose main editorial priority is opposing COVID-19 related restrictions and the vaccine, which he sees as part of “a power grab by the establishment”.
Suspended from mainstream social media, he now broadcasts via other platforms such as VKontakte, Odyssee, and Gettr favoured by people like Cossette-Trudel who have been removed from YouTube. Across the three platforms he has a total of more than 100,000 followers.
Historic ties between the two countries led some French people to donate to the Canadian trucker cause.
One fundraiser on the Christian platform GiveSendGo received $8,501 from 130 French people between Feb. 5 and Feb. 10, according to Distributed Denial of Secrets, a website that handles leaked data and said it received hacked donor data.
One donor wrote: “Much love from France, and sorry we sent you the Trudeau family centuries ago.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked rarely used emergency powers to end the protesters’ three-week occupation of Ottawa over the weekend.
Cossette-Trudel says he speaks regularly with Richard Boutry, one of the organisers of the French convoy whom he described as “a friend”.
Boutry, a Christian who believes that those in government are “disciples of satan”, has appeared on Radio Quebec and has hosted Cossette-Trudel on his own alternative media outlet, La Minute de Ricardo.
Cossette-Trudel has participated in events organised by a Canadian non-profit called the Foundation for the Defence of the Rights and Freedoms of the People (FDDLP).
French anti-vaxx rising stars sit on its board of experts: anaesthetist Louis Fouché and geneticist Alexandra Henrion-Caude, as well as infectious disease professor Christian Peronne and epidemiologist Laurent Toubiana.
The foundation has raised C$1.2 million and the second biggest outlay after lawyer fees is payment to its nine experts, said FDDLP president Stephane Blaise.
Of the four French experts, some are paid and some volunteer, he said, without giving details. Henrion-Caude denied receiving any money and said she had not financed any campaigns. The other experts did not respond when contacted for comment by Reuters.
“A lot of Europeans follow us,” said Blaise. “It is a beautiful collaboration.”
Analysis of social media activity around the last French presidential election, in 2017, showed that North American and French online activists coordinated on the forum popular with the far-right, 4chan, to swing votes in favour of far-right challenger Marine Le Pen.
In the run-up to the French “Freedom convoy,” Twitter accounts calling for or interacting with the protest were mainly connected to anti-vaxxer presidential candidate Florian Phillipot, followed by far-right presidential contender Eric Zemmour, according to data analysis by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
CNRS research director David Chavalarias said the mobilisation – online and off – was a warm-up for the election. “It’s going to become more important and more coordinated,” he said.