As France gears up for a presidential election in April, several foreign officials and state-sponsored media are promoting narratives in France’s public debate that are conducive to their foreign interests, sometimes to the detriment of French democracy. Since October 2021, the Alliance for Securing Democracy has monitored the French-language social media accounts of media outlets run by authoritarian states like Russia and China, as well as other foreign state-backed media. Five main findings came out of this monitoring exercise.
Russia finds success (again) pushing anti-public health messages
Over the past two months, the overwhelming majority of the most viewed, shared, and engaged-with content produced by Russia’s French-language state media outlets has focused on anti-vaccine and anti-public health messages.
- On YouTube, 19 of the 20 most viewed Russian state media videos from RT France and Sputnik France promoted narratives critical of vaccines and/or France’s coronavirus mitigation measures, most notably the Macron government’s vaccine pass.
- On Twitter, nine of the 10 most retweeted Russian state media tweets were critical of public health measures, vaccines, or vaccine manufactures, including a tweet promoting the misleading claim that infection rates are highest in countries with the highest vaccination rates.
- On Facebook, the three most interacted-with posts since December were critical of vaccine mandates, elevating commentary from critics who decried France’s coronavirus measures as “totalitarianism” and “repression” from the “ruling class.”
This finding syncs with ASD’s research prior to the 2021 German federal elections, which found that RT Deutsch built its audience through the promotion of vaccine and public health skepticism—messages that are not actively promoted in Russian state media outlets targeting Russian-speaking audiences and that are clearly aimed at eroding trust in public institutions in the West.
Russian talking points about Ukraine penetrate the political discourse
Russia’s French language state media have provided more coverage of Ukraine than French domestic media outlets.
- Since December 1, 2021, Sputnik France’s Twitter account has mentioned Ukraine more than any of the 65 monitored French-language media outlets on Twitter, with RT France ranking third in total mentions.
- Ukraine has also been the fourth most mentioned country (after France, Russia, and the United States) on accounts and outlets connected to RT France and Sputnik France on Twitter, YouTube, and state-funded websites since the beginning of December.
This high-volume messaging on Ukraine matters. Although these posts have not translated into high engagement overall—only one of the 100 most retweeted Ukraine-related tweets from monitored accounts over the past two months has come from an account affiliated with a Russian state media outlet—they do reach France’s political discourse.
Since December, nine of the 10 most retweeted tweets from monitored French political accounts on the subject of Ukraine mirrored Russian talking points. This trend is led by far-right politician and MEP Florian Philippot, whose tweet declaring that France “must at all costs get out of this war driven by Atlanticism and NATO” was the most retweeted tweet from a French politician about Ukraine in the past two months. Fringe candidate and Eurosceptic politician François Asselineau had two of the 10 most retweeted Ukraine-related tweets; in both, he accused the Canadian army of training “neo-Nazi militias” in Ukraine. Both politicians hover around one percent in pre-election surveys, and their takes do not necessarily reflect mainstream media and political discourse on Ukraine. Still, these politicians are amplifying Russian talking points about the crisis and, judging by engagement numbers, their takes are popular.
RT France is in a class of its own
On Facebook, RT France has a following roughly equivalent to 24-hour news channel CNEWS or public radio station France Inter, and over the past year it has ranked among the top 20 most interacted-with media pages targeting French audiences on Facebook. It also outperforms—often significantly—other foreign state media outlets in France, with the most engagement over the past three months on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and the most subscribers and followers on YouTube and Twitter. (The one exception is Facebook, where CGTN Français has a huge following but receives limited engagement.)
RT France’s influence in France is significant vis-à-vis other foreign state-funded outlets, yet it pales in comparison to RT Deutsch’s influence in Germany (prior to a recent ban of the network by German regulators), where it ranked among the five most engaged-with, viewed, and interacted-with German-language media accounts across monitored social media networks.
China in its own bubble
For all the fears that China is emulating the Kremlin’s information manipulation playbook, Beijing’s efforts in France show that it still lags far behind Moscow in this domain. Whereas Russian state media seek to build an all-encompassing alternative worldview for its viewers, Chinese diplomats and state media mainly seek to shape French perceptions on relatively narrow issues like Xinjiang, Taiwan, and pandas. Those relatively niche issues draw less attention from the French public. However, anyone in France, from NGOs to parliamentarians, who questions the Chinese state’s policies or human rights record, rapidly comes under fire from the Chinese embassy in Paris’ very reactive Twitter account, which consistently outperforms China’s state media accounts on the platform.
The state media outlets monitored by ASD are by no means monolithic. Their political preferences also diverge. Whereas Russian state media consistently highlight whoever is most divisive and controversial, most notably far-right firebrand Eric Zemmour, Qatar’s AJ+ is consistently progressive and has run several segments attacking Zemmour. Where foreign state media converge is on their overwhelmingly negative coverage of France. RT focuses on the government’s “freedom-ending” health measures, whereas TRT covers the latest “Islamophobic” French law. They may come at their coverage from different angles, but the end result consistently denigrates France. Tellingly, the most frequent reaction to Russian state media’s posts on Facebook is the angry emoji.
Foreign state-sponsored efforts to influence France’s information space ahead of the April presidential election are now in full swing. Authoritarian states like Russia and China, along with a disparate group of other interested countries, have embedded their state media in the French landscape with varying levels of success, and are using those outlets to promote their interests and worldview. Many will not have a determining role in the outcome of the April vote, but they are all playing a role in shaping voters’ perceptions of the world they inhabit and the role their country and its elected leaders should play in it.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.