For many, face masks provide protection from the coronavirus. For others, they are a "muzzle" aimed at enslaving the population. Anti-maskers use social media to challenge what they consider to be a "health dictatorship". FRANCE 24 joined some Facebook groups to learn more about the movement.
Some people take off their face masks as soon as they set foot outside, others forget them at the bottom of a handbag or buried in a pocket. But there are also those who never wear them, proudly claiming they are "anti-mask" despite the fact that it is mandatory to wear a face mask outside in many cities and towns across France, including Paris.
Manuella*, interviewed by FRANCE 24 via a dedicated anti-maskers Facebook group, is in this latter category. Since the start of the Covid-19 health crisis, the 57-year-old artist living in the Cévennes in southern France has never bought a single mask. "Unthinkable," she says of the prospect. In shops, pharmacies or banks, she concedes she “yields to the rules" by covering the lower half of her face with a bandana. "But in the street, a mask is out of the question."
Fiona* says she will never give in. In a post published on September 29, she claims to have been fired for refusing to wear a mask.
Solène will not wear a mask for more than an hour at a time, even when she is at work in a health centre. "I only ever wear it with my patients," the 30-year-old Parisian explains to FRANCE 24. As a nurse, this attitude has earned much anger from her colleagues, but she refuses to give in.
"I told them it was either that I don’t wear masks or wear one and I end up with a migraine, which would force me to go home and then I would have to hand over my patients to them.” Since this exchange the subject has been closed, even though she is aware that it has created a distance between her and her colleagues.
"Apart from my partner and my brother, who share my point of view, I feel completely alone," confides the nurse, who is part of a Facebook group with more than 6,000 members. According to an Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll on the subject from August 31, only 9% of French people say they are "completely opposed" to wearing a mask, and 15% "rather opposed". Conversely, 75% are either "completely in favour of it" or "somewhat in favour" of it.
‘Online mobilisation has not gained public acceptance’
Anti-maskers are definitely more of an urban phenomenon rather than a rural one, but they are also not very visible in France’s city streets. Only a few hundred gathered in Paris to march in opposition to masks, shouting "Liberté! Liberté!" on August 29. This is a far cry from the 20,000 demonstrators who mobilised in the streets of Berlin on August 1 and the several thousand who formed a human chain along the German-Swiss border on October 3.
"The online mobilisation is still struggling to gain broader public acceptance," explains Antoine Bristielle, author of the study "Bas les masques" (Down with Masks) for the Jean Jaurès Foundation, speaking with FRANCE 24. “But this could gradually develop, as was the case with the Yellow Vest protests.”
Bristielle, a social sciences professor, surveyed 1,000 anti-maskers as part of his study. He discovered four main objections to face masks emerged from respondents: masks are useless in preventing Covid-19 contamination; they are dangerous because they cause breathing difficulties and are a “hive of bacteria”; the coronavirus pandemic is over or never existed and the governments have lied to the people; and that masks are being used to control the people.
A very specific trend emerged in Bristielle’s study: more women and more people in their fifties participate in this protest movement than in the Yellow Vests. They are also likely to be more educated.
"They are marked by a right-wing tropism, unlike the Yellow Vests, who are anchored more to the left," explains Bristielle. "Their demand is for more freedom, unlike the Yellow Vests, who are more concerned about equality.”
Mistrust of institutions
One aspect that unites all of the anti-maskers is that they are very prolific on social media networks. They use these platforms to establish and expand their arguments: "the virus passes in spite of the mask"; "it prevents us from getting enough oxygen"; “we can’t get acquire immunity wearing masks”, as Manuella puts it.
Their arguments are regularly supported by videos from media figures such as Yellow Vest activist Maxime Nicolle. He claims that "if cigarette smoke can pass through a mask, it is proof that the same is possible for the virus".
Their arguments reflect a strong "structural mistrust of political institutions", says Bristielle, which tends to manifest in a higher susceptibility to conspiratorial theories. "Facebook groups function like closed spaces, where opposing arguments no longer have a place and no longer have a hold," he analyses. "On the other hand, they welcome anything that supports their views, including conspiracy theories.”
According to the study, 63% of those surveyed believe more than half of the conspiracy theories presented to them. One of these is that the virus was created by China to wage a bacteriological war against the rest of the world. On this point, however, Solène now admits she is “not certain”.
At issue: the government's inconsistent communication
Casting doubt about the very existence of the virus, these groups also question the political factions that might be behind it and who might be benefitting. For example, Manuella believes that the production of masks taxed with VAT has become "a money factory".
On this argument, Bristielle acknowledges that "the government's inconsistent communication [about the mask, which has been transformed from worthless to mandatory accessory] has only strengthened the anti-maskers' conviction".
The government measures have "become too intrusive in the daily lives of the French" and are becoming almost "illogical", according to Solène. She sees the obligation to wear a mask as a "muzzle" designed to control the population and reduce individual freedom.
"By what law are the elderly forced to die of loneliness? By what law are family gatherings forbidden?" she protests, referring to government advertisements "that make children feel guilty about going to see their grandparents".
Many call for resistance in the face of "this health dictatorship" so as not to become "sheep". And regularly, the comments get out of hand or turn into insults, as is often the case on social networks.
So what is the future for anti-maskers? While these groups may be struggling to get organised — just two meetings planned in October in Normandy and Lyon — they are joining other movements forming against government measures, such as those by restaurant owners or bar owners, whose industries have been wiped out. This is one way for them to attract new members into their ranks.
For the majority of French people, securing their health remains a priority, according to an Ifop poll in August. "But if the crisis continues," warns Bristielle, "[this priority] could be superseded by a demand for freedom".
* First names have been changed
This article has been translated from the original in French.