Armed with homemade explosives, fueled by conspiracy theories and fermented during the pandemic, French authorities say “The Overthrow” was a potentially dangerous creation.
According to documents seen by CNN from the DGSI, France’s internal intelligence agency, the group was a far-right network with diverse ideological roots but a single unifying aim: To topple the French government.
The DGSI alleges that the mastermind behind the group was Rémy Daillet-Weidemann, a former regional councillor in France, who was “setting up a hierarchical structure whose objective was to overthrow the government” and attack the head of state.
The alleged coup d’etat plot – nicknamed “Operation Azur” by its members, according to French news magazine Le Parisien – was first reported by the magazine’s Jérémie Pham-Lê on October 27.
CNN reached out to the interior ministry for comment but has received no reply.
The alleged coup plan never came to fruition. French security services said they shut it down before the plotters could act.
In October, Daillet-Weidemann was placed under formal investigation by French authorities – alongside 13 others – for allegedly planning violent actions, “association with terrorist wrongdoers” and “provoking a terrorist act by a third party through public telecommunications,” according to his lawyer Jean-Christope Basson-Larbi.
Basson-Larbi told CNN his client had “never proposed anything other than a peaceful overthrow – that is to say without violence and popularly supported, that’s to say with the support of the majority of the French population – of the current political regime.”
The lawyer said “Operation Azur” was the product of “fantasies” that were not those of his client, and of which Daillet-Weidemann had no knowledge. Daillet-Weidemann is still in custody.
The DGSI report stated that Daillet-Weidemann, who allegedly “envisages the use of violent action” to enact the coup d’etat, recruited members and exercised command over the cells in his network, including at least two men who planned to manufacture explosives.
“The discovery of arms, munitions, hit lists [and] explosive recipes had nothing to do with Mr. Daillet,” who was living in Malaysia at the time, Basson-Larbi added. He said his client was not responsible for the “potentially criminal or violent” projects of individuals who “invoke certain of [Daillet-Weidemann’s] ideas or pretend to have been part of his movement or claim to adhere to his political ideas.”
In June, Daillet-Weidemann was placed under formal investigation – along with 10 others – over the kidnapping of an eight-year-old girl, Mia, who went missing from her grandmother’s house in mid-April 2021, according to documents from the Nancy prosecutor.
Prosecutors allege that members of Daillet’s network, The Overthrow, abducted the child before fleeing to Switzerland in a “military-type operation” on behalf of her mother, Lola Montemaggi.
At the time she was kidnapped, Mia was being cared for by her grandmother, after her mother lost custody.
The child’s custody with her grandmother was anathema to Daillet-Weidemann who promoted “the idea that actions should be taken to return children [in care] … to their parents,” according to French prosecutor François Perain.
Mia was found safe in Switzerland – with her mother – five days after she was taken, according to the Nancy prosecutor.
Lola Montemaggi was placed under formal investigation for her alleged role in the kidnap plot and kept in pre-trial detention for several months; she was released in October, according to the Nancy prosecutor. The legal case is ongoing.
“She was a mother who was alone, who was lost, who once again had the impression that the justice system was not listening to her, not hearing her,” Montemaggi’s lawyer Stéphane Giuranna told journalists in April. “She sought refuge on social networks, on blogs. She typed in “abusive placement, child placement”, and then from address to address, from forum to forum, we ended up here today,” he said.
“She felt trapped, she felt lost, she felt unheard. She didn’t make the right choice, she knows it, she understands it,” Giuranna added.
Lawyer Basson-Larbi told CNN that “the ongoing investigation will prove that Mr. Daillet-Weidemann, who supports the action of those who returned this child to her mother, is not, by law, an accomplice to the offense,” adding that “he was not informed of the details of the transaction” nor did he “contribute to it in any way by prior or concomitant aid or assistance.”
Two of the alleged kidnappers were already on DGSI’s radar as part of an investigation into Daillet-Weidemann’s group for far-right terrorism, the DGSI report reads. The agency helped police arrest them and a search of one of their houses led to the discovery of chemicals that authorities believe were to be used in the production of explosives, according to the DGSI.
Correspondence found at this alleged bomb maker’s house points to the influence of Daillet-Weidemann on the planned operation, the DGSI report said, and the intelligence agency and the Nancy prosecutor place him at the head of both criminal enterprises.
Daillet-Weidemann’s presence at the heart of these two cases highlights the startling melding of conspiracy theories during the pandemic and across the Atlantic.
The most prominent of these conspiracy theories is QAnon – a far-right virtual cult that originated in the US and sees former President Donald Trump as a savior. A DGSI analysis of conspiracy groups in France that CNN has seen highlights how Daillet-Weidemann has become a unifying figure for such theories, including QAnon, with his network bringing together a broad church of conspiracies.
Infused within QAnon is a firm distrust or rejection of governmental power. The original QAnon conspiracy centered on claims that a sinister cabal of politicians and A-list celebrities was working in tandem with governments around the globe to engage in child sex abuse.
Online, Daillet-Wiedemann expressed a desire to “find an urgent answer in order to stop the actions of a Satanist, pedocriminal elite infiltrated by the Freemasons,” according to a DGSI analysis.
Catalyst for conspiracies
Daillet-Weidemann has become a lightning rod for conspiracy theories in France, “an emblematic figure of conspiracy,” the DGSI analysis, seen by CNN, said.
While he espoused no concrete ideology of his own, barring allegedly calling for the overthrow of the French state, he “wanted to present himself as the leader of an insurrectionary movement surfing on these various theories in order to reach a large audience,” according to the DGSI’s analysis.
The report said Daillet-Weidemann was a “charismatic, intelligent and manipulative leader,” in “the very opaque world” of conspiracy, who “quickly became an exception by showing himself openly and under his true identity,” which only increased his ability to gather support, the DGSI report said.
A community of adherents of anti-state conspiracy theories coalesced around Daillet-Weidemann, communicating via encrypted messaging and virtual private networks (VPNs), the DGSI said.
“The Daillet-Weidemann movement is a ‘catch-all’ movement, emerging from the extreme right-wing movement, allowing everyone to recognize themselves in what he proposes,” the DGSI documents said.
The DGSI said “the pandemic had a real catalytic effect and contributed to the increase and spread of conspiracy theories,” and added: “Lockdown has also led to an increase in exchanges between conspiracy supporters as people spend more time in front of their screens.”
Made in America
Researchers have charted QAnon’s growing foothold in Europe over the course of the pandemic, adapting to local narratives and conspiracies.
“Everywhere that QAnon crops up it takes on its own local flavor,” Jordan Wildon, an open-source intelligence analyst at threat intelligence organization Logically, told CNN.
After Germany, France is believed to have the second biggest network of QAnon believers in Europe, according to Wildon – it is not just an American problem. One French QAnon group on the encrypted messaging network Telegram has more than 42,000 followers, according to Wildon.
French officials are taking no chances following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which saw QAnon conspiracists, among others, commit acts of violence.
Speaking to Agence France-Presse in May, France’s national intelligence and counterterrorism coordinator Laurent Nunez acknowledged that QAnon had arrived in the country.
“Conspiracy theories have taken off significantly with social networks. We see now that people are organizing themselves in clandestine cells. Obviously, it is a threat,” Nunez said.
QAnon in France
Daillet-Weidemann is one of a number of high-profile conspiracy theorists in France stoking fears of government autocracy and state-organized pedophile rings.
In a video he released following the kidnapping of Mia, in which he salutes the “brave Frenchmen” who remove children from “sordid networks,” Daillet-Weidemann said that his “organization … returns children kidnapped by the state” to their parents on demand.
Speaking about alleged state-backed child kidnapping, he also references a non-existent investigation into former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a common target for baseless conspiracy theories regarding alleged pedophile rings. The Nancy prosecutor told CNN that Daillet-Weidemann’s network believed that children in the care of the state were vulnerable to pedophiles.
The legally enforced lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates sparked by the pandemic have only increased fears for some that the government is interfering too much in people’s lives.
This is apparent on The Overthrow’s website, which calls on French people “to act” against the state, to ward off “decadence” and “dictatorship.”
According to the DGSI, one video of Daillet-Weidemann calling for a popular uprising on his now-defunct YouTube channel racked up more than 300,000 views.
As the pandemic wore on, Daillet-Weidemann’s obscure worldview began to enjoy growing popularity among conspiracy circles, including QAnon groups, according to Wildon. In five French and two English QAnon channels on Telegram monitored by the analyst between October 2020 and May this year, the ex-politician’s name appeared around 350 times.
In some of these channels, people espoused fears about pedophile gangs and referred to Daillet-Weidemann as a savior for France, according to messages shared with CNN by Wildon – echoing QAnon’s view of Trump as a saviour-figure for the US.
Daillet-Weidemann moved his family to Malaysia at the end of 2020, but his online organizing continued unhindered, according to the DGSI report’s timeline. He and his family have since returned to France.
The kidnapping of 8-year-old Mia, in April 2021, was a key moment in the unraveling of Daillet-Weidemann’s network, leading to the arrest of members also implicated in alleged wider plans for violent action and bombings, the DGSI said. French authorities also say that correspondence found at the address highlights Daillet-Weidemann’s influence over planned violent actions.
A month beforehand, Daillet-Weidemann had launched an online fundraising campaign to finance the abduction of children in foster care, according to a statement from French prosecutor Perain.
The prosecutor says Daillet-Weidemann called on his network to find a safe house for the mother and daughter in Switzerland
Perain said Daillet-Weidemann told his network: “The whole point is to bring help to people on the run, that we help to avoid the repression of the dictatorship.”
By the time Mia was abducted, Daillet-Weidemann was allegedly spreading the word about his planned coup and drawing on the support of a growing movement that opposed Covid-19 vaccination, according to the intelligency agency report.
While members of Daillet-Weidemann’s network face allegations of organized kidnap and even bomb-making, it is far from clear whether the online putschists could have carried off a full-scale coup d’etat.
However, the DGSI report said two members of the group had allegedly received bomb-making instructions from a chemistry teacher at a far-right populist political rally in February.
The next day one of the men tried to source potash-rich fertilizer – a key ingredient in homemade explosives – from two garden centers near his home, according to the DGSI. A search of the other man’s home by authorities turned up other explosives components, according to the DGSI, as well as a copy of the “Anarchist’s Cookbook,” a guide to home-made explosives.
Both men were later arrested as part of the Mia kidnapping case. They were placed under formal investigation for “kidnapping in an organized gang” and “association with wrongdoers with a view to committing a crime,” according to the Nancy prosecutor. They are awaiting trial.
But the alleged plot’s abrupt end held lessons for at least one member of “The Overthrow.”
“I have the feeling of having slipped into madness at the time of lockdown,” the chemistry teacher who allegedly provided bomb-making instructions, told police investigators, according to police interview reports obtained by Le Parisien.
The man said he was “going to resign” from teaching, noting: “I imagine students might have nightmares about being entrusted to the care of a terrorist.”