The recent kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl, the arrest of her mother and five suspected accomplices and the issuing of an international arrest warrant for a former politician accused of orchestrating the operation from abroad have cast light on the influence of QAnon and other conspiracy theories in France.
For five days last week, French media followed the abduction of an 8-year-old girl identified as Mia from her grandmother’s home in eastern France to her recovery at a squat in Switzerland, some 200 kilometres away.
The search, involving some 200 police, ended Sunday when Mia was found with her mother, 28-year-old Lola Montemaggi, inside an abandoned factory in Sainte-Croix, near the French border.
Mia was returned to her grandmother’s care on Monday, while Montemaggi, who had lost custody of her daughter and was no longer allowed to see her alone or speak with her on the telephone, remained in Swiss custody pending extradition.
During the search, French police detained five suspected accomplices, all men, three of whom are accused of posing as child welfare officials to convince Mia’s grandmother to let them take the girl away.
Following the arrests, prosecutors said the suspects had concocted a bizarre plot code-named Operation Lima that involved walkie-talkies, camping gear, fake licence plates, a 3,000-euro budget and a prepared script to be read to the grandmother.
Police described the suspects as survivalists and anti-system activists motivated by the belief that children placed in care were unfairly taken from their parents. None had criminal records.
With their testimonies leading investigators to seek the arrest of prominent conspiracy theorist Rémy Daillet-Wiedemann, a former French politician suspected to be living in Malaysia, a picture has emerged of a network of individuals under the sway of some of the most extreme conspiracy theories to surface in recent years.
Changing social media posts
Reports in French media said Lola Montemaggi worked for many years as a waitress at a restaurant in Montélimar, in the south-eastern Drôme department, before moving closer to her parents in the eastern Vosges following her separation from Mia’s father.
Montemaggi was reportedly close to her family and kept a garden before dedicating herself to the anti-government Yellow Vest movement that began in late 2018.
“I think she found her cause at that time,” a friend told media, also describing the changing nature of Montemaggi’s social media posts. “The last link she sent me was on 20 March. I didn’t look at it… but I noticed it was about abusive placements of children.”
Through 2019 and 2020, Montemaggi’s Facebook posts showed newfound preoccupations with vaccines, 5G technology and especially the notion of a malevolent state taking children from their families. Some posts bear hallmarks of QAnon, a US-based theory that has taken root in Europe.
“The elites are known to be paedophiles. Child trafficking networks really exist, they are highly structured and organised, but above all go unpunished,” reads a message posted by Montemaggi in April 2020. “Conventional media never talk about that, you have to do your own research. Wake up, sheep! New world order, 5G chip, satanism etc etc."
An organised abduction
Police said a court decided to temporarily place Mia in the care of her maternal grandmother in January 2021, citing Montemaggi’s “violence towards her companion, suicidal remarks and refusal to send [Mia] to school despite the rejection of a request for home schooling.”
Under the court order, Montemaggi was able to see her daughter twice per month, never alone. Police said she stopped responding to summons from the child protection office and the family court.
The abduction happened on 13 April, when a man convinced Mia’s grandmother that he represented the child protection services and, with two accomplices, brought the girl to Montemaggi.
Over the next five days, a public abduction alert made for a heavily mediatised search for the kidnapped girl, drawing testimonies that led police to identify and arrest the suspected accomplices.
Newspaper Le Parisien reported intelligence and anti-terrorist services identified the accomplices through a separate investigation into individuals preparing to attack vaccination centres and to abduct children who had been placed in care.
Testimonies helped police determine Montemaggi had travelled to Switzerland, passing by Neuchatel and a campsite with the help of contacts before arriving in the squat on 17 April, a day before their discovery by police.
Mia’s paternal grandparents said through their lawyer the rescue was “a huge relief” and “the end of nights of anguish and fear for the life of our little girl, in particular because of the extremist commitments of the kidnappers.”
Striking another tone, Mia’s maternal grandfather, separated from the grandmother lodging the girl, defended his daughter throughout the search.
“I approve of what she’s done, it’s very brave,” Claude Montemaggi said, expressing “relief” that his daughter “could find the find support of organised persons willing to take risks for her”.
Orchestrated from abroad?
Testimonies of the suspected accomplices turned the investigation towards Rémy Daillet-Wiedemann, who was leader of the office of the centrist MoDem party in the southern Haute-Garonne department in 2007 before his expulsion in 2010.
More than a decade later, he operates a website dedicated to an overthrow of the French government and outlines a vision for France that hits on many libertarian and QAnon themes, including abolishing Covid-19 sanitary measures including mandatory masks and shop closures, cancelling deployment of 5G technology and stopping “undue placement of children”.
“Rémy Daillet appears to be a leading organiser of the ‘movement’ to which the suspects belong” and may have “played a role in organising the kidnapping and provided the contact details for the person who took in the mother and child in Neuchatel,” read a statement issued by state prosecutor François Perain.
Investigators also suspect Daillet-Wiedemann of encouraging a vehicle ramming attack on a police station in the southwestern city of Dax in November and using a fake social media account to praise the vandalism of a memorial to victims of a Nazi massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in central France.
For the moment, the story of the kidnapping and the alleged perpetrators is largely based on police statements, media testimonies and social media posts. None of the accused had spoken publicly or in court as of Wednesday.