PARIS (AFP) - "It's not a virus, it's a tool to use power," says Ms Monique Lustig in the Netherlands, while in Germany, resident Hellmuth Mendel argues that "Covid-19 is a story invented by an international financial mafia". "And what if this was all just a film?" asked Mr Christophe Charret in France.
From The Hague to Stuttgart and Paris, they claim to be battling the control of their minds by a ruling class that invented the pandemic for its own ends, seeing themselves as promoting and disseminating alternative views from the official version.
Conspiracy theories, driven by the global health crisis, are taking root in Europe more than ever, drawing inspiration from the QAnon movement in the United States. Accounts supporting the theories have been purged from Twitter and YouTube after breaking the regulations of the social media giants.
Proponents have taken to other platforms to publish information - mostly false - which they claim "mainstream" media are hiding.
AFP reporters spent months looking into this environment of conspiracy theories on the continent, finding everything from adherents of QAnon, ultra-evangelicals and anti-vaxxers, to right-wing populists, the unemployed and even doctors.
They make up a disparate mix of movements and views but their growing power is worrying Western European intelligence services which fear that democracies could be destabilised.
"Conspiracy theories have taken off significantly with social networks. We see now that people are organising themselves in clandestine cells. Obviously, it is a threat," said France's national intelligence coordinator Laurent Nunez, acknowledging that QAnon theories have arrived in the country.
European groups affiliated to QAnon or related to the movement are growing on social media. Some 30,000 subscribers of messaging app Telegram follow the so-called DeQodeurs in France, more than 100,000 follow German conspiracy theory figures Attila Hildmann and Xavier Naidoo, while almost 150,000 follow Briton Charlie Ward, who offers subscribers a near incessant flow of pro-Donald Trump montages. "There is a cocktail in place," a source in the intelligence community in France told AFP, adding there were grounds for concern over the issue.
The factors include a "weakening of the socio-economic fabric, a strong movement of protesting digital platforms where it is easy to post conspiratorial comment, as well as upcoming elections" in France next spring, said the source, who asked not to be named.
"These movements have more or less existed for the last 10-15 years. They feed on the sense of an anti-system conspiracy," a senior French intelligence official told AFP. The official said there was an overlap with small ultra-right fringe groups, while emphasising that people involved increasingly come from "quite varied backgrounds".
Involvement can tear apart families, with loved ones unable to stop relatives falling into the groups' grasp. Forty-eight-year-old bookseller Paul - not his real name - told AFP how his mother had slowly drifted away.
"She lived as a recluse, she spent an incredible amount of time online, looking for answers to her rage against the injustices of the world.
"She consumed YouTube 24 hours a day, the conspiracy channels were her only window to the world. The lockdown was the last straw and Covid-19 confirmed all her theories about the end of the world," he said.
Bete noire Bill Gates
In mid-March, under the low sky of Uithoorn, a peaceful town south of Amsterdam, Mr Lange Frans had a warm welcome for visitors to his recording studio.
"No mask here," said the rapper who enjoyed a degree of success in the 1990s, with a tone of mockery, boasting how he had taken part in a concert without any social distancing a day earlier. In recent years, his podcasts have become hugely popular in the Netherlands. They take the form of two-hour talk shows, where he invites a personality to take an "alternative" look at the news.
Subjects can range from Covid-19 and the disappearance of Flight MH370 to child crime and UFOs - anything to stimulate the world of conspiracies.
He takes aim at Mr Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who has fought for decades to improve access to vaccines and is a bete noire for conspiracy theorists.
"Take Bill Gates, people should find out about him," said Mr Frans in his studio, dotted with pictures of AC/DC and guitars. "Always look at the money. You can only make money on the cure if people actually believe they are sick. "He has no medical degree or expertise in vaccines," he insisted.
Mr Gates has ploughed billions of his personal fortune into a philanthropic foundation he heads with his wife Melinda - they are now divorcing - that champions basic health care.
For Mr Frans whose YouTube channel is regularly shut down, the pandemic is above all a "soap opera" and a "supermarket flu" that the media serve up all day long.
That Sunday, the day before parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, 3,000 people protested coronavirus restrictions in the centre of The Hague amid a carnival atmosphere closely watched by the police. The country had been rocked weeks earlier by several nights of highly unusual riots when a curfew was imposed.
In the demonstration, populist activists, critics of a "world government" and promoters of natural medicines stood shoulder to shoulder. A common denominator united them - scepticism in the face of the official line on the pandemic.
"It's not a virus, it's a tool to use power. The elite of the world has been organising this. Yes, for so many people it's too crazy to imagine it's true. But they have been working on it for more than 20 years," said Ms Lustig, a restaurant owner.
A little further on, Jeffrey, a 21-year-old student, distributed leaflets denouncing in particular the "Great Reset", a plan by the World Economic Forum to revive the economy after Covid-19. He alleged that it concealed hidden aims of controlling freedoms and reducing populations. "I want people to know it's not a pandemic, it's a plan to reset the world," he said.
Along with Mr Gates, the founder and chief of the Davos-based Forum Klaus Schwab is another target of conspiracy theorists' anger. "The globalist elite are taking advantage of the situation to create a new society. There are thousands here convinced that this is not a pandemic," said Mr Ard Pisa, a former banker who has now become an advocate of alternative medicine to cure cancer. "Eight million children disappear every year, it's part of our world, we must not close our eyes. There are a lot of cases of hushed-up paedophilia," he continued, repeating one of the favourite themes of QAnon supporters.
That figure - regularly evoked by child protection non-governmental organisations - in fact includes reported disappearances, including runaways. An overwhelming majority of such cases are ultimately resolved, with the children safe.
The gathering in The Hague was not exceptional in Europe. Protests against limitations aimed at fighting Covid-19 systematically draw large numbers of conspiracy theorists.
In Denmark, members of the Men in Black group insist that the coronavirus is just a "scam", while in Berlin, demonstrations against restrictions can rally up to 10,000 people, many brandishing QAnon flags.
"QAnon is a point of convergence for extreme right-wing groups, people who believe in unidentified flying objects, those who think that 5G (wireless technology) will be used to control people," said Mr Tom de Smedt, a Belgian researcher and author of several studies on the growth of the movement in Europe.
QAnon, which was born in the United States, came to global prominence with the storming of the Capitol in January during the last days of the Trump administration.
It takes its name from cryptic messages posted by an individual using the identity "Q", believed to be a senior US official close to Mr Trump. Very active in the US since 2017, QAnon notably defends the idea that a "deep state", driven by a handful of elites, rules the world order.
The fake Pizzagate scandal, where US Democrats were accused of heading a paedophile network, is one of the keystones of QAnon ideology. The false claims can sometimes challenge even the imagination, such as a recent assertion that 1,000 children were freed from the Ever Given ship which blocked the Suez Canal, as part of an international trafficking ring fomented by Mrs Hillary Clinton.
'Control of conscience'
For Mr Charret, a French businessman with an affable personality and athletic physique, "the messages of Q are the bible of the conspiracy theorist".
It was the evening when French Prime Minister Jean Castex was about to announce on live television that much of the country would be put into a new de-facto lockdown. But Mr Charret has not bothered to turn his TV on.
Instead, he was in his small office in the basement where he was preparing to appear on the daily news bulletin of the Human Alliance, an association with 12,000 subscribers on Telegram which analyses the news in conspiratorial style. The opening credits set the tone.
Against music worthy of Hollywood blockbusters, images followed one another without pause, using the full gamut of ammunition in the conspiracy theorist's arsenal - assassinated US president John F. Kennedy, the Sept 11 attacks, 5G, vaccines, Mr Trump, and - of course - Mr Gates.
"The world is led by a financial-technological conglomerate which controls the sovereignty of peoples. Technology makes it possible to do troubling things. Control of conscience, in particular, is not a myth," Mr Charret said, an illuminated letter Q glowing behind him.
That evening, he appeared in a video that racked up some 30,000 views, talking about vaccines, US President Joe Biden but also highlighting action taken by the association which raises funds for children in need.
"We are at a tipping point for the world, two camps clash and those in charge are not our friends. They will do everything to not let go of the reins.
"But the forces are working for a future D-Day. Things are being prepared," he warned, while insisting all engagement would be peaceful and rejecting violence.
Telegram, the hugely popular messaging app created by Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, has always insisted it takes full measures against extremist content while providing a secure forum for freedom of expression.
Diehard QAnon adherents remain relatively discreet and rare in Europe - the core of the movement remains deeply American. But their ideological beliefs have proved influential in Europe.
"Even if all European QAnons support the standard narrative - that is to say they support Trump and far-right ideas - each group adapts these messages to local circumstances," said the director of strategy at the Israeli cybersecurity company ActiveFence, Ms Nitzan Tamari.
But the disappointment of seeing Mr Biden inaugurated as US President after his victory over Mr Trump did dampen the hopes of some believers, as social media giants increasingly take action against them. "At this moment, QAnon is like a hurt crab retreating into its shell. Twitter did a very thorough job with removing QAnon accounts," Mr de Smedt said.
The digital purging, however, has not yet pulled up the roots of these theories that allowed them to become successful in the first place. "You don't see the usual hashtags and images but the sentiments didn't just go away. You still have people who believe parts of the conspiracy theory.
"Most of the sentiments were not necessarily left-wing or right-wing politically but anti-establishment and against any government," Mr de Smedt added.
Battle in the media
Many rumours relayed through Telegram groups often go beyond the conspiratorial hardcore and sometimes end up entering the public debate. In January, thousands of messages suddenly began denouncing on social networks a purported plan to create "masturbation rooms" for children at a creche in Teltow, south of Berlin.
The information, spread by some elected members of the far-right AfD party, even prompted a member of the ruling majority to criticise the alleged initiative.
In fact, it had all started with an article in a local newspaper where misinterpreted quotes were blown out of all proportion on social media. In France, the 2020 online documentary Hold-Up, a montage lasting nearly three hours, offered a platform for conspiratorial stories from doctors, deputies, researchers and sociologists, held together by fluent editing.
It has been seen by several million people, despite being removed by a number of video platforms shortly after it was released. Denounced by many MPs from France's ruling party as conspiratorial propaganda, it has become a point of reference for all those who doubt official narratives, whatever their political affiliation.
"This film is a synthesis of all the dynamics of the conspiracy movement right now. They make their mark with speeches everywhere and we have to do this too," said an official from President Emmanuel Macron's party, who asked not to be named, as elections loom in one year.
In 2019, a study by the Jean Jaures Foundation showed that the electorate of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was by far the most inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, with 35 per cent against an average of 21 per cent nationwide in France.
'Gateway to extremism'
In the Netherlands, after a campaign focused on opposing anti-Covid-19 measures and fed by conspiratorial rhetoric, the populist eurosceptic Forum for Democracy party quadrupled its number of parliamentary seats in legislative elections. In Urk, a small fishing town nestled within the ultra-Protestant "Bible Belt", the Forum made its biggest progress in coming third.
Like other European populist parties, it does not overtly flirt with conspiracy theories but has a sufficiently ambiguous and attractive discourse for an electorate often tired of politics. "People here have doubts about the vaccine" against Covid-19, said local priest Alwin Uitslag.
"There are medical reasons - we don't know the effects of the vaccine - but also religious reasons. Do we believe in God or do we believe in the vaccine? God gives us health and disease. Can we interfere with his plans?" he told AFP.
In the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, a stronghold of German opposition to Covid-19 restrictions, Ms Christina Baum was giving a speech in the early spring sunshine. A few days before the regional elections in the south-western German state, Ms Baum, regional spokesman on health issues for the AfD party, addressed the issue of Covid-19 with her supporters, without a mask or any taboos.
Supporter Mendel described Covid-19 as a "fable of the criminal international financial mafia". For Ms Baum, there was no question of contradicting such opinions. In the AfD, all views were welcome, she said.
"With Covid-19, theories I had never heard of before emerged. And I find it fascinating. What do you want to do with these people? Do you want to tell them that they are completely excluded from society? It is not possible. We must seek dialogue with everyone," she told AFP.
A February 2021 report by several NGOs, including the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said that those who vote for far-right parties have a "stronger tendency" to believe in conspiracy theories linked to Covid-19, including one in five AfD voters.
But in Germany, the "Querdenken", or unconventional thinking movement that challenges official narratives, is under reinforced surveillance due to its links with movements close to the extreme right which openly question the constitution.
"We are looking here at a clearly limited group of people and we see that they have had contact with the extremist scene. Conspiracy theories can accelerate radicalisation and be a gateway to extremism," said a German intelligence official in Baden-Wuerttemberg, who asked not to be named.
European intelligence officials now openly fear that conspiracy theories could lead to a destabilisation of democracies. "We are worried that these individuals could turn to violent acts," said the senior French intelligence official, also expressing concern over Russian state media interference through English-language channel RT and the Sputnik news network.
In Germany, "the atmosphere in recent times at demonstrations has become much more aggressive", said the intelligence official in Stuttgart.
"What is most dangerous for me is not the handful of radicals, it is the kind of tidal wave that leads to mistrust and an increasingly strong mistrust towards institutions," said social psychologist Sylvain Delouvee at France's University of Rennes. It remains to be seen if such a wave will grow in intensity politically.
Legislative elections in Germany this year and French presidential polls in 2022 will be crucial tests, with the pandemic still a factor.
"What is key is to know if the (French presidential) election will channel - or not - this desire for protest expression," said the source in the French intelligence community.