On July 17, as more than 100,000 people rallied across France in the first week of protests against the Covid-19 health pass, Martine Wonner told a crowd of demonstrators in Paris to “Go and lay siege” to MPs backing the bill. Christophe Castaner, leader of President Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) in the National Assembly, referred her to the criminal justice system for these words.
Wonner’s speech also earned her expulsion from the Libertés et Territoires group – a small parliamentary bloc whose most prominent MPs are social libertarians and Corsican nationalists – leaving her as an independent member of France’s lower house, the National Assembly.
This was a long way from the start of Wonner’s political career as one of Macron’s army of non-career politicians who swept into France’s lower chamber when the centrist upstart’s party won a landslide majority in the parliamentary elections that followed his 2017 presidential win.
On Saturday, for the fourth consecutive weekend, protesters took to the streets to rally against the Covid-19 health pass voted through parliament last month – a wave of protests for which Wonner has been one of the most active political backers.
Wonner has emerged as the face of the French resistance to the health pass, social distancing measures and the fringe embrace of poorly tested “treatments” such as hydroxychloroquine touted by controversial Marseille doctor Didier Raoult.
The former French ruling party MP is “the symptom of how the Covid pandemic has brought many French people under the spell of conspiracy theories”, Tristan Mendès France, a prominent expert on conspiracism, told Le Monde. “As one of few elected politicians visible in public life to express scepticism about all public health measures, she has become parliament’s answer to Didier Raoult; a figurehead to whom people flock in protest.”
From psychiatry to politics
A psychiatrist by training, the 57-year-old Wonner worked as a medical consultant in her native Alsace-Lorraine before working in the NGO and private sector in managerial roles.
She entered politics as part of the vast new LREM intake of civil society professionals, heralding Macron’s promised shake-up of French political institutions. But not long after she was elected to the National Assembly from the Bas-Rhin constituency near the German border, Wonner was complaining of “complete burnout” – thanking Macron for having “got her going again, both literally and figuratively” (a pun on En Marche, which means “on the move”).
She soon ruffled feathers amongst her new colleagues, saying that she “never follows the party line” – notably abstaining on Macron’s 2018 immigration bill – and expressing scepticism about “working as a group of 300 people” referring to LREM’s 307 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly.
Vincent Thiébaut, LREM MP for the neighbouring constituency in eastern France, told Le Figaro he could see Wonner was taking political positions “opportunistically” and that his concerns were “vindicated by what happened next”.
Kicked out of ruling party
Wonner torpedoed her relationship with her then party when Covid-19 took France by storm in March 2020 – telling parliament that face masks are “absolutely useless” and vociferously supporting Raoult’s hydroxychloroquine treatment.
She set up pressure group Laissons les Médecins Prescrire (Let Doctors Prescribe) to lobby for the anti-malarial drug’s use against the coronavirus, taking to the media to promote hydroxychloroquine while posting on Twitter non-peer reviewed, insufficiently evidenced studies in its favour.
LREM excluded Wonner from its parliamentary bloc in May 2020 in response to her vote against then French prime minister Édouard Philippe’s plan to take France out of lockdown.
Wonner quit the party soon after, joining Écologie Démocratie Solidarité, a small, short-lived breakaway faction of leftist former Macronistes; she left this group in September 2020 due to disagreements over her views about the pandemic.
Protests ‘don’t win presidency’
Wonner then took her criticisms of the Macron government’s Covid policies to shady corners of the Internet such as France Soir – a renowned broadsheet in the early post-war era, which closed in 2012 before re-emerging two years ago as a conspiracist website promulgating canards like the QAnon fantasy – and videos by Silvano Trotta, an online conspiracy theorist notorious for claiming that “masks make people ill” and that Covid-19 is a “plandémie” orchestrated by Bill Gates.
As experts warned in August 2020 that a resurgent coronavirus would cause another spike in deaths throughout much of Europe in the following months (a vindicated warning), Wonner said: “When is this virtual second wave coming? Stop the fear.” Covid-19 just an “enormous flu”, she declared late last year.
Wonner also featured in French pseudo-documentary Hold-Up, released in November 2020. Propagating a plethora of debunked claims, the online film got more than 2.5 million views – demonstrating that coronavirus disinformation has a large audience in France – with several famous faces including iconic actress Sophie Marceau sharing the video.
Since early 2021, Wonner has made vaccines the focus of her ire after they started to provide a path out of the Covid nightmare – making the false claims that jabs “do not protect anyone” and that RNA vaccines such as those of Pfizer and Moderna are like “some kind of genetically modified rubbish”.
Hence Wonner’s characterisation of the health pass as “the disgraceful pass”. Experts say such false narratives are fuelling opposition to the health pass more than traditional civil libertarian concerns expressed by some mainstream politicians.
Amid repeated mass protests against the health pass, Wonner wants to create an “apolitical citizens’ movement” centred around her views. But there is reason to doubt that it would gain enough traction in France’s already crowded political landscape ahead: Polls show that – contrary to the image the mass protests create – a majority of French favour the health pass and that support for demonstrations against it is a minority concern, paling in comparison to public sympathy for the Yellow Vests in 2018.
In light of this, analysts say figures such as Wonner look like good foils for Macron as he seeks a second term in the Élysée Palace: “You don’t win the presidency through [hundreds of thousands of demonstrators] spread across France,” Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester, told FRANCE 24. “You win through sensible, evidence-based policy to end the pandemic and restart the economy.”
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