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France fights disinformation as Olympics, elections loom

Lisa Louis in Paris
April 12, 2024

With the Paris Olympics and Paralympics approaching — not to mention the European elections in June — France is ramping up its fight against information manipulation. EU officials are also on guard.

Olympic rings in the foreground, the Eiffel Tower in the background and people between
French officials fear disinformation campaigns will target the 2024 Summer OlympicsImage: Michel Euler/AP Photo/picture alliance

On May 5, 2017, two days before his runoff against the nationalist Marine Le Pen, emails from the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, then competing in his first election for the French presidency, were leaked online in what his team called "a massive and coordinated attack to undermine democracy." Not only that, but fabricated emails were mixed in with genuine ones to mislead voters.

"At that moment, we understood how much of a threat disinformation is," said Marc-Antoine Brillant, the head of Viginum, a 50-member department established in 2021 to battle foreign digital interference. "After the 2017 election, people across various ministries started working on the matter, but, by 2021, it had become clear we needed a dedicated division to fight disinformation," Brillant told DW.

"We had seen online information manipulation play an ever-bigger role during different crises — like the yellow vest demonstrations for more social justice starting in late 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly terror attack on history teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020," he added.

The division regularly discloses disinformation efforts such as the "Doppelgänger" campaign, through which pro-Russia agents have tried to gather support for the invasion of Ukraine in seven EU countries by publishing information on websites that resemble established media.

France races to bolster security ahead of Olympics

Another example is the Portal Kombat network: 193 websites established through a company based on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula that have spread pro-Russia propaganda in France, Germany and Poland.

"Viginum is a democratic, transparent way within the rule of law to fight against attempts to manipulate information," said Brillant.

The division's efforts will be tested in the months leading up to June's elections to the European Parliament and the Olympics and Paralympics in Paris from July to September.

Resilience through awareness 

France was one of the first countries to adopt a systemic approach to fighting disinformation, said Jiore Craig, digital integrity expert at the London-based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Craig has been looking at information manipulation campaigns during elections worldwide since 2013.

"Throughout the Brexit vote, after which the UK left the EU, and the 2016 US presidential elections, it became clear that disinformation is focused on undermining democracy," Craig told DW.

"The EU parliamentary elections 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic then had us realize that fact checking was no longer enough," she added. "We needed a systemic approach to understand which network actors were spreading falsehoods."

Difficult to 'distinguish between truth and falsehood'

David Colon, a history professor at the Paris university Sciences Po, said disinformation practitioners don't just traffic in lies. 

"Those who spread disinformation are aiming to confuse us so much so that we're no longer able to distinguish between truth and falsehood and lose trust in our democracy and institutions," he said. 

Colon said the invasion of Ukraine was a watershed. 

"Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected a swift victory," he said. "Since that didn't happen and Ukraine got the West's backing, he now feels he's fighting for his own political survival."

Russia using disinformation to deny Ukraine atrocities

Colon said that, in his role at the time as the Kremlin's chief of staff, Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev had said in 2004 that Russia sought to support antiestablishment parties within the European Union — including France's National Front, the precursor to Le Pen's National Rally. 

In 2014, he said, the National Front was able to access a €9.4 million loan from First Russian-Czech Bank. 

The National Rally is now leading in French polls for the elections to the European Parliament in June, and pollsters no longer rule out the possibility that Le Pen could win the presidency in 2027. 

"By helping such parties, Russia aims to deepen divisions in our societies for them to disintegrate," said Colon.

He added that disinformation efforts had increased ahead of the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in France.

"The Kremlin is trying to cast a doubt on France's capacity to hold the Games and thus further weaken our country — for example by fanning fears of terror attacks," he said.

Lutz Güllner, who leads a 42-member team dedicated to fighting disinformation at the EU's External Action Service, also told DW that Russia is the main challenge. "France's structure is really well-made," said Güllner, whose group runs the European Union's early-warning Rapid Alert System, which allows member states to share intelligence on disinformation campaigns.

France frequently targeted

Arthur de Liedekerke, the senior director of European affairs at the Brussels-based consultancy Rasmussen Global and a former strategic adviser in France's Armed Forces Ministry, said there is a reason why the country was often the target of disinformation attacks. 

"Our army is deployed in numerous countries, we regularly organize international summits and events, and our politicians are known to take controversial views like President Macron, who recently said sending troops from other Western countries to Ukraine could no longer be entirely ruled out," he said.

Macron: Deployment of ground troops to Ukraine is an option

He also said France should consolidate its efforts to combat disinformation. Currently, the secret service cooperates with various ministries to react to attacks.

"France should bundle these tasks in one division to make better use of its resources," said de Liedkerke.

France, EU respond to disinformation attempts

Colon said Russia saw France as particularly susceptible to disinformation.

"They know that the French have always been skeptical toward their politicians and media and are sympathetic to powerful politicians like Putin," he said. "But we are no longer weak and are fighting back."

The European Union will also be on its guard in the run-up to the elections, Güllner said.

"That does not mean, however, that these elections will necessarily be manipulated," he said. "That's a narrative aiming to incite people to not even turn out to vote — we shouldn't buy into it."

Edited by: M. Gagnon