‘Hold-Up’: French ‘documentary’ lends voice to Covid-19 conspiracy theories

The film by former journalist Pierre Barnérias has been a huge hit on social media.
The film by former journalist Pierre Barnérias has been a huge hit on social media. © YouTube screen grab

Lampooned by experts and debunked by fact-checkers, the controversial French film “Hold-Up” claims to uncover a global conspiracy by world elites to control citizens through the Covid-19 pandemic. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the reasons for its astonishing success.


As France grapples with its second Covid-19 wave and nationwide lockdown, “Hold-Up”, an almost three-hour-long film berating French and other leaders for their handling of the pandemic, has become the talk of the country. 

Financed through a crowd-funding campaign and directed by former journalist Pierre Barnérias, the film claims to reveal the French government’s lies about Covid-19 and a global conspiracy to control the public. It features testimonies from ordinary citizens and well-known personalities, including former health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, who has since distanced himself from the project. 

“Hold-Up” exploits known failings and inconsistencies in global responses to the health crisis – including the French government’s initially conflicting guidelines on the wisdom of wearing facing masks – to advance more controversial ideas and outright lies. It has been lambasted by politicians and non-governmental organisations for featuring and spreading multiple conspiracy theories, and most of its claims have been debunked by fact-checkers.

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But the chorus of condemnation has done little to hinder the film’s success – and may even have encouraged it.

The Ulule funding site, which hosted the crowd-funder, has since removed “Hold-Up” from any advertising on its website. The film itself has been withdrawn from several online platforms, only to reappear in numerous versions, via YouTube in particular.

Shared by a smattering of celebrities, including actress Sophie Marceau, “Hold-Up” has reached well beyond the traditional circles of conspiracy theorists. Since its launch on November 11, it has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. Clips from the film have also circulated widely on social media, including Instagram and the Snapchat messaging app popular with a younger audience.

Slick and persuasive

According to Sylvain Delouvée, who researches social psychology at the University of Rennes 2, the film’s success owes much to a polished format that evokes the standards of investigative documentaries, from the spooky background music to the flurry of “experts”.

“It has the trappings of a documentary, but this isn’t journalism,” he explains. “The film has a single objective: spreading the idea of a global conspiracy.”

The film’s main strength lies in its ability to mingle legitimate interrogations with fanciful insinuations, proceeding step by step.

“In the beginning, the tone suggests healthy scepticism and criticism,” Delouvée says. “Unlike typical conspiracy videos, the film takes its time before the conspiratorial thinking gets into motion.”

“Hold-Up” begins by listing the many queries and criticisms that have emerged in public debate since the start of the pandemic, including controversies over face masks, the origins of the virus, the harmful effects of lockdowns and the role of pharmaceutical lobbies.

“It’s a hallmark of conspiracy theories to mix elements of truth with false interpretations, truncated findings and outright lies,” Delouvée says.

One example is the film’s treatment of a 2010 Senate report on the so-called Swine Flu pandemic, which compiled a list of criticisms levelled at the World Health Organisation at the time. 

“The senators, who are hardly prophets, go so far as to denounce a false pandemic,” claims the film’s voice-over narration, attributing some of the worst criticism, including claims that the WHO “invented” the pandemic, to the Senate report itself.

A litany of conspiracies

To sway viewers, “Hold-Up” employs a well-known rhetorical technique, sometimes referred to as the Gish Gallop, which involves overwhelming the audience with as many as arguments as possible, without leaving them time to digest the information and think things through.

One of its main strengths is the way it assembles and conflates a variety of conspiracy theories. These include the supposed futility of face masks, claims that hydroxychloroquine is a proven remedy for Covid-19, the theory of links to 5G mobile networks and the notion of a totalitarian global government – known as the New World Order – bent on enslaving the people.

“It’s a mishmash in which everyone can find something to agree with, whether it’s masks, 5G, vaccines or the New World Order,” says Delouvée. “You don’t need to agree with all of it; one or another of the theories can be enough.”

According to Arnaud Mercier, a professor of communication and information sciences at Panthéon-Assas university in Paris, this patchwork approach has helped to “rally a broad audience around questionings and criticisms that go beyond the usual conspiracy theories”.

As a result, “Hold-Up” has reached a very diverse audience, Mercier adds. “The worrying thing is that this has brought people into contact with a host of ideas they were not exposed to before.”

Fertile ground

In addition to social media, the film’s astonishing popularity owes much to its spread via messaging services, such as WhatsApp. These help “create small communities, touching people who are close to us”, says Delouvée.

With its deceptively simple solutions, the film has also found a fertile terrain in the context of a pandemic that has overwhelmed health services, shut down economies and left governments around the world scrambling for answers.

“The exceptional nature of this period, the general loss of bearings and the frequent incoherences of public authorities have created an environment in which people are particularly receptive to alternative theories,” Mercier explains.

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This has left journalists, teachers and politicians with a quandary: should they respond to the film, challenge its assertions and risk giving it greater publicity?

Mercier says the popularity of conspiracy theories calls for greater clarity and coherence from the authorities, experts and the media.

“The debate cannot be abandoned to people who spread nonsense,” adds Delouvée. “It is important to continue voicing arguments and exposing the contradictions of conspiracy theorists.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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