COVID-19, Conspiracy Theories, and Cults in France and Belgium

ICSA Today Vol. 12, No. 1, 2021, pg. 18-22

COVID-19, Conspiracy Theories, and Cults in France and Belgium

Catherine Perry

Periods of crises lend themselves particularly well to cultic theories, beliefs, and behaviors. The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated issues such as conspiracy theories, not only in the United States but also worldwide. In the words of social scientists Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders,

COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists. Here we have a global pandemic, a crashing economy, social isolation, and restrictive government policies: All of these can cause feelings of extreme anxiety, powerlessness, and stress, which in turn encourage conspiracy beliefs.1

Responses to the Coronavirus in France and Belgium

Some faith groups in France have adapted and reframed the coronavirus pandemic, using it to enhance their Internet presence, develop recruitment strategies, engage in phone banking, and offer alternative medicines.2 The pandemic has also provided them with an opportunity to proclaim their beliefs and to persuade audiences that their faith would protect them from COVID-19 or even heal the disease.3 Others have called for fasting and prayers to fight it.4 According to the French governmental organization MIVILUDES—the Interministerial Mission to Monitor and Combat Cultic Abuses—other groups claim to have foretold the crisis, a claim that validates their millennial theories by interpreting the coronavirus as divine punishment and as a sign of the Apocalypse.5 During the first period of lockdown, from March 17 to May 11, 2020, MIVILUDES documented 70 reports of cultic activities, though not all were related to the coronavirus. In June 2020, historian of religion Jean-François Mayer, who disputes MIVILUDES’ notion of dérives sectaires (cultic abuses), asserted to the contrary that “neither the Center for Information on Beliefs (CIC) in Geneva, nor Infosekta in Zurich, nor Miviludes in Paris state that they have observed an increase in reports [of cultic abuses] during the pandemic.”6 However, Camille Chaize, spokesperson for the French Interior Ministry, recently confirmed situations where gurus and influencers would return to themes such as divine punishment with a recrudescence of apocalyptic currents linked to the pandemic. People spoke about the imminence of the end of times. This discourse evolved profoundly because of Covid.7

In a video dated March 18, 2020, Stephen Lett, member of the central Collège (governing body) of Jehovah’s Witnesses, commented on the pandemic: “The expansion of this disease is undoubtedly a source of concern. But we aren’t surprised that such epidemics take place. Jesus announced in Luke 21:11 that epidemics would be part of the signs of the last days.”8 Although such views are in the minority, they are loud.9 Contributing to a sense of marginalization in these groups is the fact that both government and society view religious practices as optional and involving only one community among others.10

Established religions offer a contrasting perspective. In Belgium, for instance, Father Tommy Scholtes, a Catholic religious-information specialist, has strongly rejected the notion that the pandemic is a divine punishment: “As Christians, we do not think that God could punish people who, by definition, are innocent of what befalls them. God is not a puppeteer who manipulates humanity according to his whims.”11

Muslims also have a different perspective on the pandemic. Already in Medina at the beginning of Islam, a hadith (statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) recommended that people not leave their homes during an epidemic or travel to a country affected by one. According to the Exécutif des Musulmans de Belgique (Executive Council of Muslims in Belgium), pandemics are considered a trial for humans, who must hold on to their belief, strength, and faith in God.12

Similarly, Albert Guigui, great rabbi of Brussels, has underscored the importance in Judaism of protecting life: “If someone is in danger, no religious celebration matters; Seder, Kippur, all of that disappears while we wait to return to a normal life.”13 Accordingly, most religious groups and churches have complied with governmental regulations and only broadcast their services online.14

Early in the pandemic, in-person religious gatherings could become hotspots, such as the assembly of 2,000 adherents of the Evangelical church La Porte Ouverte Chrétienne (The Christian Open Door) in Mulhouse, from February 17 to February 21, 2020, which caused the first major COVID-19 outbreak in France. Later, adherents perceived themselves to be stigmatized by society and alleged they were the object of threats, which led to a belief in martyrdom.15 Thierry Le Gall, spokesperson for the CNEF, or French National Association of Evangelicals, protested that its approximately one million members had become scapegoats: “On social media we have observed numerous violent comments, for instance, ‘these are cults, they must be eradicated.’ ... We are accused of having provoked or spread death. This is intolerable!”16 During a service on October 18, 2020, Pastor Samuel Peterschmitt queried the congregation, now limited to the presence of 700 in the church: “Why has our assembly been exposed so gravely to the pandemic? Why has it been blacklisted to such a degree? Why so many unfounded and unjust accusations?”17

Cofounder with his brother Yves of the evangelical and charismatic neo-Pentecostal Impact Centre Chrétien (Christian Impact Center) near Paris, which groups 85 churches worldwide, Pastor Yvan Castanou preaches weekly to more than 2,000 adherents online and later draws millions of views on his YouTube postings of these assemblies. Considering himself to be “divinely immune” to “this simple flu,” Castanou has typically declared that “the devil enlisted a power to destroy this world” and that “evil people gave this power to Satan,” which God tolerates so that believers may learn and grow in wisdom.18 Eventually, on March 14, 2020, he announced officially that the church of Impact Centre Chrétien had the duty and obligation to join the fight against the pandemic and to respect the government’s steps. From March 25 to March 27, 873 individual churches and participating associations gathered online for the international assembly that Castanou organized on the website.19 Subsequently, on March 29, he affirmed that God had reassured him that “[i]n just a few weeks from now we will no longer hear about the coronavirus.”20

Fears generated by the coronavirus have led self-declared health gurus to promote extreme nutritional diets and alternative remedies on their websites and YouTube platforms. This is the case of Thierry Casasnovas, watched by MIVILUDES since 2014, and the Belgian Jean-Jacques Crèvecoeur, who has resided in Canada since 2004. The website Conspiracywatch has listed Crèvecoeur among antivaxxers since 2009, when he denounced the H1N1 virus as a “lie that has been ongoing for 140 years.”21 Such statements attract an audience of sometimes more than 500,000 viewers on Crèvecoeur’s YouTube channel, Émergence International Inc.

Olivier Klein, a professor of social psychology in Belgium, explains this appeal:

The primary mechanism consists in valuing one’s audience by playing with their feeling of powerlessness. ... Crèvecoeur tells us that the authorities take us for idiots and that he will reveal the truth. So we feel smarter and invested with the duty to share this truth.... By giving us a simple explanation for a complex reality, this kind of person calms our anguish, functions as an anxiolytic.22

On a July 20, 2020, YouTube broadcast, Crèvecoeur compared mask-wearing to a form of enslavement and exhorted his followers to civil disobedience by refusing coronavirus tests and protective face masks.23 According to Charles-Henri Martin, speaking on behalf of the Cellules d’urgence médico-psychologique (medico-psychological emergency cells) in France: “Catastrophic situations, such as the one we are currently experiencing, give rise to activities in cultic associations to establish their psychological grip on vulnerable people.”24 Currently, it is estimated that more than half of cultic associations are involved in health and wellness, especially alternative medicine. To hamper their activities, the French government has created a YouTube channel that reminds viewers of sound medical practices and warns them about cultic abuses.25

Accompanying cultic reactions to the coronavirus are strong reactions to the government, which Mayer describes as “a distrust toward governments and, more generally, official recommendations, be they political or scientific. Secular institutions are suspected of finding in the pandemic a pretext to curb or prohibit the public expression of religious sentiment.”26 At this point, people reject nearly all official and mainstream accounts.27

Such responses are closely tied to conspiracy theories, which have significantly increased during the pandemic. Beyond the United States, it is believed that Bill Gates created COVID-19, aims to depopulate the planet and, through vaccinations, plans to implant surveillance microchips.28 Likewise, the US-based QAnon conspiracy has now reached Europe: “QAnon, the US-based conspiracy about a Satan-worshipping, paedophile cabal secretly running the world, is taking root in Europe feeding on fears stirred up by the coronavirus outbreak.”29

This kind of misinformation, shared millions of times, has exploded on the Internet and social media.30 In May 2020 even famed actress Juliette Binoche shared such views with utmost seriousness on Instagram, to the dismay of many of her 330,000 followers.31 Luc Montagnier, 2008 French laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, also raised eyebrows when he publicly subscribed to a conspiracy theory about the human-made origins of the coronavirus.32

Vaccinations are consequently viewed with wariness. An investigation by the Institut français d’opinion publique (French Institute of Public Opinion) from March 31 to April 2, 2020, showed that 27% of French people would refuse an antidote to the coronavirus if it were available.33 In the words of Olivier Salustro, president of the Compagnie régionale des Commissaires aux Comptes (Regional Company of Statutory Auditors) in Paris, “the times are favorable to credulity, psychological grip and mental manipulation,” and “one quarter of the most-watched videos on YouTube concerning Covid-19 include false information.”34

Conspiracy theories spread algorithmically on both YouTube and social media worldwide. As Johanne Montay writes ironically,

The faces that appear on YouTube and that take up to two hours of your time to convince you that “the dominant media lie to you” are not unknown. During this (lost) time, at least, you won’t read reputable sources of information.35

Similar to what happens when people join cults, the quest for truth leads them to believe in conspiracy theories and, as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it recently—also on YouTube—they “get sucked down a rabbit hole.”36 According to the French psychiatrist Serge Hefez, confined youth, who may “seek religious radicalism when confronted with an existential anguish,” are particularly vulnerable and become the main target of cults on the Internet and social media.37

For further reference, in a February 19, 2019, New York Times article, Kevin Roose coined the term YouTube-centric worldview;38 2 days later, The Atlantic published an article in which Alexis Madrigal wrote that “the conspiratorial mind-set is threaded through the social fabric of YouTube. In fact, it’s intrinsic to the production economy of the site,” and he continued that conspiracies help YouTubers “move up the logarithmic scale of YouTube popularity.”39 Finally, on August 19, 2020, the global online-activist network Avaaz published exhaustive research about social media. The authors claim that their study “uncovers health misinformation spreading networks with an estimated 3.8 billion views in the last year—and shows how to quarantine this infodemic.”40

On November 11, 2020, an eagerly anticipated French documentary, Hold-Up: retour sur un chaos (Hold-Up, feedback on a chaos), was released on the film channels Vimeo and Dailymotion. Both platforms removed the film within hours when it became clear that it delved in conspiracy theories and made glaring errors that fact checkers quickly debunked.41 Produced through crowdfunding, the film has since become available for free on, the video-sharing platform.42 According to Hold-Up’s press release, the film director, investigative reporter Pierre Barnérias, who is known for developing conspiracy theories, aimed “to unveil the errors made by the highest public authorities [with respect to the coronavirus pandemic] and to question the foundations of our freedoms as well as the future in store for us if we remain impassive before these political abuses.”43

Hold-Up therefore attacks the French government as well as other, mostly European, governments for their management of the crisis, including the imposition of lockdowns and the promotion of protective facemasks. One of the film’s goals is to instill doubt by tracking contradictory official responses to the pandemic, which did occur in the early months of the pandemic. It also claims that the coronavirus was fabricated by the Institut Pasteur but is not as dangerous as vaccines created to prevent the disease. Structured in 4 thematic sections—sanitary, medical, economic, and social—this controversial film is 2 hours and 43 minutes long. During this time viewers are exposed to a rapid superposition of arguments, including from health professionals such as Christian Perronne, head of the infectious diseases department at the hospital of Garches.44 Though not necessarily related, these arguments have a cumulative effect contributing to an impression of coherence. From an emphasis on facts at first, the film moves toward the ideological, finally developing the hypothesis of a “global manipulation” by political and business leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos and aiming to control the world’s population. From November 13 to November 16, 2020, the film gathered 2,646,000 views on

It is unsettling to discover websites with millions of viewers, which are frequently misleading and, through provocative or sensationalist information, attract up to four times more visitors and elicit more shares than sites of leading health institutions. In addition, some of these sites do not specify the names or qualifications of their contributors, while others present fictional names. French-language information sites that Avaaz recorded in Europe include,,, (the French version of Signs of the Times), and Clearly, just like the novel coronavirus pandemic, the crisis has reached global proportions.


[1] Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders, “The Coronavirus Conspiracy Boom,” The Atlantic, Apr. 30, 2020.

[2] Nicolas Stival, “Coronavirus : ‘Les discours délirants explosent’ … Les sectes s’adaptent et surfent sur la crise,”, Apr. 9, 2020. See also Margaux d'Adhémar, “Le reconfinement fait-il le jeu de l'emprise sectaire?,” Le Figaro, Nov. 19, 2020. All translations from the French are mine.

[3] Jean-François Mayer, “Analyse: les Églises chrétiennes face au coronavirus—bilan intermédiaire et perspectives,” Religioscope, Apr. 26, 2020.

[4] Golias, “Contre le Covid-19: trois jours de jeûne et de prière,” Golias News, May 1, 2020.

[5] Cathy Gerig, “Coronavirus: charlatanisme, extrémisme religieux…la crainte des dérives sectaires,” Réforme, Mar. 19, 2020.

[6] Jean-François Mayer, “’Dérives sectaires’ et coronavirus: la force des stéréotypes,”, Jun. 13, 2020.

[7] Caroline Senecal, “Le coronavirus a-t-il favorisé les arnaques et dérives sectaires?,” Top Santé, Oct. 6, 2020. See also d’Adhémar, Nov. 19, 2020, who quotes MIVILUDES about the growing influence of cults over the Internet: There has been a multiplication of cases in which “people show all the signs of being under the influence [of a cult] although they have not been physically in contact with the person who has authority over them.”

[8] Quoted by Mayer, Jun. 13, 2020.

[9] Mayer, Apr. 26, 2020.

[10] Olivier Roy, “Le croyant: un consommateur comme un autre?,” L’Obs, May 8, 2020.

[11] Quoted by Marie-Cecile Royen, “La virtualité d'un culte: comment vit-on sa religion en temps de pandémie?,” Du vif/L’Express, Apr. 2, 2020.

[12] Quoted by Royen, Apr. 2, 2020.

[13] Quoted by Royen, Apr. 2, 2020.

[14] Mayer, Apr. 26, 2020.

[15] Mayer, Apr. 26, 2020.

[16] Quoted by Henrik Lindell, “Coronavirus: ‘Chrétiens évangéliques, nous sommes accusés d’avoir répandu la mort. C’est insupportable!,” La Vie, Apr. 3, 2020.

[17] Quoted by Malo Tresca, “À Mulhouse, la Porte ouverte chrétienne se relève douloureusement du Covid-19,” La Croix, Oct. 20, 2020.

[18] Quoted by Golias, May 1, 2020.

[19] Golias, May 1, 2020.

[20] Quoted by Golias, May 1, 2020.

[21] Quoted by Johanne Montay, “Coronavirus: comment fonctionne la théorie du complot du belge Jean-Jacques Crèvecoeur?,” RTBF.BE, May 4, 2020.

[22] Quoted by Montay, May 4, 2020. Likewise, Yuval Noah Harari describes the lure of global conspiracy theories [which resembles that of cults]: “Global cabal theories are able to attract large followings in part because they offer a single, straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes. Our lives are repeatedly rocked by wars, revolutions, crises and pandemics. But if I believe some kind of global cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything. ... The skeleton key of global cabal theory unlocks all the world’s mysteries and offers me entree into an exclusive circle—the group of people who understand. It makes me smarter and wiser than the average person and even elevates me above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. I see what they overlook—or what they try to conceal” (“When the World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2020).

[23] Maïli Bernaerts, “Un influenceur belge dans le viseur pour ses propos sur le Covid,” DH | Les Sports, Jul. 27, 2020.

[24] Quoted by Julie Chapman, “Sectes et coronavirus: la crise sanitaire est devenue leur nouveau terrain de jeu,” Franceinfo, May 16, 2020.

[25] Chapman, May 16, 2020.

[26] Mayer, Apr. 26, 2020.

[27] Joe Pierre, “How Far Down the QAnon Rabbit Hole Did Your Loved One Fall?,” Psychology Today, Aug. 20, 2020. Here, Pierre describes a general reaction, independently of any specific country.

[28] Claire Hache, “‘Le vaccin va vous tuer’: l'offensive numérique des antivax à l'heure du Covid-19,” L’Express, May 14, 2020.

[29] Agence France-Presse, “Covid a ‘Catalyst’ for QAnon's Rise in Europe,” France 24, Sep. 15, 2020.

[30] Agence France-Presse, “Ces théories du complot qui envahissent internet en temps de la COVID-19,” TVA Nouvelles, May 15, 2020.

[31] France Inter, “Covid-19, vaccins et 5G: les délires complotistes de Juliette Binoche sur Instagram,” France Inter, May 7, 2020.

[32] See the discussion of this issue by Felix Bast, “A Nobel Laureate Said the New Coronavirus Was Made in a Lab. He’s Wrong,” Wired, Apr. 22, 2020.

[33] Hache, May 14, 2020.

[34] Olivier Saluto, “L'esprit critique, un remède au virus de la désinformation,” Les Échos, Aug. 7, 2020.

[35] Montay, May 4, 2020.

[36] Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Michael Shermer, “Coronavirus & Conspiracy Theories,” StarTalk Podcast, July 16, 2020.

[37] Quoted by d’Adhémar, Nov. 19, 2020.

[38] Kevin Roose, “YouTube Unleashed a Conspiracy Theory Boom. Can It Be Contained?,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 2020.

[39] Alexis C. Madrigal, “The Reason Conspiracy Videos Work So Well on YouTube,” The Atlantic, Feb. 21, 2019.

[40] Avaaz, “Facebook’s Algorithm: A Major Threat to Public Health,” Avaaz, Aug. 19, 2020.[41] Articles and presentations that exposed false claims in the film include the following:

Charles Decant, “‘Hold-Up’, le film documentaire complotiste qui se répand sur les réseaux sociaux,” Europe 1, Nov. 13, 2020.

Matthew Hobroyd, “’Hold Up’: French Coronavirus Film Gives Floor to the ‘Usual Suspects of Conspiracy’,” The Cube, Euro News, Nov. 13, 2020.

Jean-Mathieu Pernin, “Comment le documentaire ‘Hold up’ est devenu une affaire politique?” Fact Checking, RTL, Nov. 13, 2020.

Adrien Sénécat and Assma Maad, “Les contre-vérités de ‘Hold-up’, documentaire à succès qui prétend dévoiler la face cachée de l’épidémie,” Le Monde, Nov. 12, 2020.

Alexandra Schwartzbrod, “Doute,” Libération, Nov. 12, 2020.

Service Checknews, “Covid-19: dix contre-vérités véhiculées par ‘Hold-up’,” Libération, Nov. 12, 2020.

Digital Editorial Staff, “Tal Shaller, Rader, Crèvecoeur: qui sont les figures des anti-vaccins contre la Covid-19?,” France Inter, Nov. 17, 2020.

[42] was launched in 2020 by LBRY, an internet protocol that “uses a blockchain to build a decentralized content platform controlled by the community, and allows its users to publish, host, find, access, download, and pay for content with ease” (Jun Li; Alex Grintsvayg, et al., “A Blockchain-Based Decentralized Digital Content Marketplace,” 2020 IEEE International Conference on Decentralized Applications and Infrastructures (DAPPS), Oxford, United Kingdom, 2020.

[43] See also the film’s website,

[44] Adrien Sénécat, “Qui est vraiment Christian Perronne, médecin référent des complotistes?,” Nov. 18, 2020.

[45] Julien Baldaccino, “Le documentaire ‘Hold-Up’ a été vu (au moins) plus de deux millions et demi de fois sur Internet,” France Inter, Nov. 16, 2020.

About the Author

Catherine Perry has her PhD in French from Princeton University, is Chevalier in the French national order Ordre des palmes académiques, former President of the Conseil International d’Études Francophones, and former Editor in Chief of the refereed journal Nouvelles Études Francophones. She has written about French and Francophone literature, particularly works of French women poets. With a focus on intercultural dialogue and understanding, she has offered courses at the University of Notre Dame on Islam in contemporary Francophone literature; Marcel Proust; French literature of the fin de siècle and the Belle Époque; French travelers to North Africa; women writers from the 20th century to the present; contemporary French literature and film; European fiction at the turn of the twentieth century; and rebels, vagrants, and outsiders in French literature and film. A recipient of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Award for Teaching Excellence, the Distinguished Notre Dame Woman Award, and the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, she is also a fellow of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.