In the hours following a gun attack that killed three people and wounded 13 others in the French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday evening, Facebook pages linked with the Yellow Vest protests went abuzz with theories of a government set-up.
“Strange that this attack comes the day after Macron’s address,” wrote one user in reference to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals to raise wages and cut taxes on Monday. “It’s a frame-up to scare people into not going to the demonstrations.”
Macron’s administration is under pressure to diffuse the anger driving the Yellow Vest movement, many of whose participants have denounced the proposals and called for a fifth consecutive Saturday of protests.
“Don’t you find it strange this attack comes at a time the government is scared?” asked another user. “I’d bet they’re going to ban Act V!”
Some were even more explicit in accusing the French authorities of masterminding the attacks. “Let’s not be thrown off by this attack set up by the secret services,” read one post. “A little attack to stop the Yellow Vests? Nice try, Macron,” read another.
One of the movement’s high-profile figures, Maxime Nicolle, also questioned the official version of the events in a video posted to Facebook.
"Dites-vous bien que le mec qui veut faire un attentat vraiment, il attend pas qu'il y ait 3 personnes dans la rue le soir à 20h00"...#Strasbourg : l'indispensable analyse du #GiletJaune Maxime Nicolle ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/3qf8d9qlN5Conspiracy Watch (@conspiration) 11 décembre 2018
“If a guy wants to plan an attack, he doesn’t wait until there are three people in the street at 8 o’clock in the evening; he goes to the Champs-Elysées when there are millions of people and blows himself up,” said Nicolle, who is also known by the alias Fly Rider.
“That’s a real attack. The rest is just scare tactics.”
A number of screenshots of Twitter messages by public officials and media were circulated as proof that something was amiss.
One appears to show a tweet of Strasbourg region authorities warning people to avoid the site of the attack displaying a time nearly eight hours prior to when the attack began.
Bon je craque mais j’attendais le fameux cercle ⭕️ qu’on trouve sur les photos partagées par les conspirationnistes. Ils sont là of course. Figures imposée trouvées sur des groupes #giletsjaunes. pic.twitter.com/g5PFsyi2o4Tristan Mendès France (@tristanmf) 11 décembre 2018
Another is a tweet of breaking news site BFM-TV reading “shots fired in Strasbourg: one dead and six injured reported so far”, showing a time thirteen hours prior to the facts.
A number of articles debunking the theories have explained that Twitter time displays can appear different depending on the time zone settings of a user’s computer.
Self-censorship within Yellow Vests
Not all Yellow Vests welcomed the theories, and many users denounced the content of the messages and called on others to show restraint.
Moderators of groups, some of whom have also acted as unofficial spokespersons of the movement, also sought to have exercised a degree of self-censorship.
La France en colère (France Enraged), which has over 250,000 members and is one of the most popular groups, decided to block posts in the evening.
“To maintain a calm atmosphere and facilitate the moderation of inappropriate comments, of which there are many, I’ve decided to take the exceptional decision to block publications for the evening,” wrote administrator Maureen LC.
Claudine Martinez Sanchez, the moderator of a group called Gilet Jaune (French for yellow vest), which has nearly 155,000 members, blocked publications for the evening and called on members to “remain well-behaved and united out of respect for the victims in Strasbourg”.
“We’ll create a new group,” replied one member. “We don’t need you.”
Government wants 'return to normal'
Two members of the French government firmly denounced the theories circulating about the Strasbourg attack.
“Every time something disgusting happens, other disgusting things add themselves to the mix,” said Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
“We don’t need people to develop these conspiracy theories. It’s too easy to do so in these times, which raises many questions about the negative aspects of social networks.”
“How could anyone say such things?” asked Laurent Nunez, secretary of state in the interior ministry, on radio station France Inter. “An assailant killed three people and seriously injured others, some of whom are between life and death.
“We’ve already seen conspiracy theories flourish at other moments of the yellow vest demonstrations,” Nunez continued, in reference to claims circulating last week that Macron was signing an international migration pact to cede French sovereignty to the United Nations.
“This is one more example, and frankly, it’s disgraceful.”
The government had previously hinted it could activate emergency measures to deal with the protests, but Nunez said there were no plans to ban public gatherings for the moment.
“We’re not at that point. The measures taken are only to forbid demonstrations at Strasbourg, and only for today [Wednesday],” Nunez said.
While “the situation has substantially changed” with the Strasbourg attack, Nunez added “this threat already existed,” and called on would-be protesters to do their part to be responsible when it comes to Saturday’s call to demonstrate.
“Following the announcements [of Macron], a way forward is open and the phase of dialogue has to begin,” he said.
“We hope the calls to demonstrate draw fewer people, because there comes a time when things have to return to normal.”