How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Since the terror attack that killed 49 Muslims and wounded dozens at Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, French authorities have been investigating what connections, if any, the killer, Brenton Tarrant, may have had in France.
We know that Tarrant visited the country during the presidential campaign of 2017, witnessing the defeat of what he called “the nationalist camp” (that is, Marine Le Pen). Tarrant traveled to several countries at the time, including Israel, but France impressed him the most—so much so that he made his final decision to “do something” to stop the Muslim invasion of the West on his way back from France. France is where he claims to have had the revelation that the West was “invaded” by the “nonwhites,” a problem to which French politicians offered only a “farce” in guise of a solution. In language disturbingly close to that emerging from the anti-Semitic corners of the “yellow vest” movement in recent months, Tarrant also meditates on French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he sees as “a globalist, capitalist, egalitarian, an ex-investment banker was [sic] no national beliefs other than the pursuit of profit.”
Unlike their Muslim counterparts, who tend to rely on anonymous texts that submerge their subjectivity, Western terrorists are graphomaniacs. The American Unabomber of the 1990s; the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people on the island of Utoya in 2011; the U.S. misogynist Elliot Rodger, who killed six and injured 14 in Isla Vista, California, in 2014; and now Tarrant, who quotes Breivik: All seem eager to justify bloodshed through highly individualistic, verbose jeremiads that sometimes sound like a mockery of the intellectual posturings the French are so known for. (Robert Bowers, the author of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre, appears to be an exception, but only because he spent the months preceding the attack expounding his hate on a daily basis on social media.) These “manifestoes” offer a glimpse into the killers’ views of the world.
Unlike their Muslim counterparts, Western terrorists are graphomaniacs.
In Tarrant’s case, the references to France and French culture literally saturate his 74 pages, starting with the title: “The Great Replacement”—a formula popularized in far-right circles worldwide by the French essayist Renaud Camus, who holds that a “Muslim invasion” threatens white Europeans with a new genocide. In July 2017, for instance, the alt-right Canadian figure Lauren Southern posted on YouTube a video titled “The Great Replacement” that received more than 250,000 views that year. An anonymous website called great-replacement.com, which quotes Camus in an epigraph, claims that mass immigration of non-European people poses a demographic threat and that “European races are facing the possibility of extinction in a relatively near future.” Tarrant’s manifesto echoes this language almost word for word.
Even Tarrant’s mention of the British fascist Oswald Mosley as the sole political figure worthy of his respect sounds like a French reference by proxy: Mosley moved to Paris in the 1950s, after his British Union of Fascists had gone to ashes along with Adolf Hitler. Later, after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to return to British politics, Mosley retired to the City of Light to write his memoirs and to die.
During his years in the French capital, Mosley developed a postfascist movement called Europe a Nation that worked hand in hand with two groups ingrained in France: Jeune Europe, led by the former Nazi Jean-François Thiriart, from Francophone Belgium, and the European Social Movement, cofounded by René Binet, a French Trotskyite militant who turned Nazi in 1940 and enlisted in the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-SS. Several former members of his SS contingent joined the National Front when Jean-Marie Le Pen created it in the early 1970s. It was Binet, not Camus, who first came up with “the great replacement” formula in the early 1960s.
In other words, that catch phrase finds us right at the heart of the French far-right, postfascist tradition. What to make of this genealogy of hate, and why is it important to understand it?
French activists, perhaps sensing rightly that there is something specific afoot in France, tend to conclude that the country has always been inherently racist. In The Washington Post a few days after the Christchurch massacre, for instance, the essayist Rokhaya Diallo claimed that France has been Islamophobic for years, and now “French islamophobia goes global.” But what did Mosley, Thiriart, and Binet mean, exactly, when they invented “the great replacement” formula at the dawn of the Cold War? Were they really seeking above all to promote Islamophobia—or is such a conclusion convincing only to those unfamiliar with the history of French political violence? The question is not purely rhetorical, nor is it a matter of historical detail.
On the evening of March 17, two days after the Christchurch killings, two New York University student activists—Leen Dweik, a Muslim Palestinian, and Rose Asaf, an American Jew—attended a vigil for the victims at a New York City Islamic center. Chelsea Clinton was present, and the two students verbally assailed her for complicity, so they claimed, in the Christchurch massacre. As absurd as the attack on the former first daughter may seem, there was a logic behind it: that of fighting Islamophobia. A few days earlier, Clinton had tweeted her support “as an American” for a statement criticizing Ilhan Omar’s remarks on the Jewish lobby in the United States. For the two students, that tweet and the expression “as an American” could be read only as a racist, Islamophobic targeting of Omar, and since Chelsea Clinton was therefore Islamophobic, and all Islamophobes are one, she shared responsibility for the bloodbath in New Zealand.
The Christchurch killing is “a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you have put out into the world, and I want you to . . . feel that,” Dweik harangues Clinton, who, pregnant and understandably frozen with terror, tries to apologize on the video the two students posted on social media that same evening. The video instantly went viral, to the pleasure of the two students, who rejoiced the next day on BuzzFeed: more than 10,000 shares, they let us know, while the bodies of the victims of the Christchurch killings were still warm.
More than just a symptom of the narcissism of righteous anger in the digital age, this incident shows what happens when a superficial analysis is taken to its logical conclusion. If the heart of the matter, the seed of the crime, is indeed Islamophobia, and only that, then everyone tainted with such sin has blood on their hands. Steve Bannon, Chelsea Clinton, and Brenton Tarrant are one and the same—while Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life killer, simply disappears from the murderous equation.
It is to avoid such simplistic thinking, and obtain a more complete view of the landscape of violence, that we need to better understand the French source of a poison that is indeed threatening to go global. So what did Mosley, Thiriart, and Binet have in mind with their “great replacement,” and what in their thinking has influenced killers today?
The midcentury postfascists started from the premise that Europe had been occupied since 1945 by two competing imperial forces: the capitalist United States, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other. Both were forms of the one true enemy: cosmopolitanism, engineered and controlled by an international Jewry looking for revenge. Yes, Jews could be both communists and capitalists: such ubiquity was in itself the sign of the Jews’ nefarious power. But if communists were plotting to import internationalism through social change, capitalism was bringing cosmopolitanism through the melting pot, technology, and modernity. In order to save what they saw as the “true” white, Western tradition and culture once defended by the Nazis, European nationalists everywhere had to regroup and unite against all this. Such a union of nationalists, paradoxically enough, knew no borders.
But this presentation sounds more coherent than it actually was. In fact, antimodernism and hostility to immigration were less an ideology than a mindset, a disparate collection of reactionary ideas embodied by different movements—Mosley’s Europe a Nation, Thiriart’s Jeune Europe, Binet’s European Social Movement, and a few others—and translated into very paradoxical actions, to say the least. Mosley and Thiriart, for instance, both fiercely defended the remnants of the French and British empires, including French Algeria and apartheid South Africa. Yet as soon as the former colonies acquired their independence, Thiriart changed his mind, and by the mid-1960s, his neofascist party, Jeune Europe, was siding with the new nationalisms of the Third World. Hence in 1967, the first Western terrorist to fall, weapon in hand, in the Middle East was Roger Coudroy, a Jeune Europe militant from France. He died training in a Palestinian camp. By the same token, Jeune Europe’s anti-Americanism led its members to support the Black Panther movement in the United States.
The year after Coudroy’s death, in 1968, far-right activists created the Research and Study Group for European Civilization, known by the French acronym GRECE. Under the tutelage of its leading thinker, the aristocrat Alain de Benoist, GRECE would later be relabeled “the New Right” and extend its influence over people as different as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chamber philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, the mad theoretician of “Eurasianism,” and figures of the U.S. alt-right such as John Morgan, editor for the white nationalist publication Counter-Currents, and Richard Spencer, the man who gave President Donald Trump a Nazi salute in Washington.
Benoist pushed to the logical extreme the foggy set of paradoxical ideas Mosley and Thiriart first set forth. He gave those ideas a new shape. What he did, essentially, was to replace “nationalism” with “identity.” Under his influence, the far right began to support politically correct notions such as “diversity” or “ethnopluralism,” and it is with him that things become tricky and that the border between far left and far right begins to blur.
Read, for instance, this excerpt from Benoist’s “Manifesto for a European Renaissance”: “The true wealth of the world is first and foremost the diversity of its culture and peoples. The West’s conversion to universalism has been the main cause of its subsequent attempt to convert the rest of the world: in the past, to its religion (the Crusades); yesterday, to its political principles (colonialism); and today, to its economic and social model (development) or its moral principles (human rights). . . . The Westernisation of the planet has represented an imperialist movement fed by the desire to erase all otherness.”
By the time Benoist wrote this in 1999, the Cold War had been over for ten years and the United States could be seen as the last Western empire: the ultimate hyperpower, fatherland of world citizens, source of a process of globalization through technology and international banking that would subject the rest of the planet to an American way of life. Now that even communism was dead, what force could resist this?
References to France and French culture literally saturate the 74 pages of Tarrant's manifesto.
To Benoist, that force is called Islam. Benoist supports the Islamic Republic of Iran and more broadly, since the mid-1980s, “the awakening of political Islam,” in which he sees “not a threat but a hope”: a sign that “popular collective identities” are starting to rebel “against the dominant systems.” In 1989, he took Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s side against Salman Rushdie, even suggesting that the publication of The Satanic Verses was an American manipulation intended to tarnish Iran’s public image. Although he is opposed to immigration, Benoist is to this day a defender of the veil. Do these sound like Islamophobic positions?
In fact, what is most striking about the extract above is how similar it sounds to Islamist propaganda. Consider the attack against the Crusades, against colonialism, or against “universal values” such as human rights. All of these are regular targets of Islamists. Or consider the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, which starting in 1990 waged a civil war that would claim some 200,000 lives, based on a similar worldview. The Algerian Islamists fought, so they claimed, to defend “the true Algerians” and “the true Muslims” against “the democracy of homosexuals championed by the West, which brought us only Communism and capitalism that corrupt the soul of man where Islam frees it.”
The so-called democracy of homosexuals is a reference to the notion that globalization’s most dire effect is to undermine virility and the patriarchal order. In France, far-right polemicists such as Éric Zemmour have written whole books to protest against “the feminization of society.” The same Zemmour, an editorialist of the right-wing daily Le Figaro, has publicly claimed his “admiration” for the killers of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Kouachi brothers, for doing “things that we [Westerners] are not able to do any longer.” He was joined in his praise by the far-left novelist Virginie Despentes, who three weeks after the killings said in an interview that she “loved” the killers for their clumsiness.
Interviewing himself in his manifesto, Tarrant writes: “Do you personally hate Muslims? A Muslim man or woman living in their homeland? No. A Muslim man or woman choosing to invade our lands, live on our soils and replace our people? Yes, I don’t like them.” He adds, significantly: “the only Muslims I really hate is the convert, those from our own people that turn their backs on, turn their backs on their cultures and became blood traitors to their own race. These I hate.” Incidentally, he expresses the same view about Jews, whom he sees as fit to live only in “their country of origin”—namely, Israel. For him, Jews had no purpose and no place in the diaspora.
The same goes for Renaud Camus. In the spring of 2000, Camus, at that time praised by the left as an heir to Roland Barthes, published a book titled La Campagne de France in which he complained that the main voices of “the French experience as it was lived for some fifteen centuries” are “representatives of the Jewish race,” which was to say, people who “do not participate directly in that experience” and therefore “express that culture and that civilization in a foreign way.” The sentence implied that writers such as Marcel Proust, for instance, were “exterior” to French culture.
The book was widely reviewed and this passage systematically bypassed. I wrote a piece quoting these lines in the magazine I worked for at the time, Les Inrockuptibles, and this set off a three-month-long intellectual psychodrama for which only the French have patience. Only after 9/11 did Camus modify his views, in effect exchanging his anti-Semitism for an obsession with Muslims while publicly turning into an ardent Zionist.
Does this mean that anti-Muslim feelings are absent in France or unknown in far-right circles? No, of course not. There are famous sentences written by Charles de Gaulle asserting that Muslims, “with their turbans and djellabas,” can’t be French: “Do you believe that the French nation can absorb ten million Muslims who tomorrow will be twenty million and the day after forty? . . . My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux-Églises [Colombey of Two Churches], but Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées [Colombey of Two Mosques].” Interestingly enough, de Gaulle wrote this during the Algerian war, contemplating the prospect, for him unreal, that after the independence Muslims would migrate to France en masse. To add a cruel twist, the Muslims he refers to here are “the Harkis,” which is to say, the Muslims who fought with the French, against the Algerian freedom fighters; and the question de Gaulle sought to answer was whether, when the French retired, these Harkis should be left behind to be slaughtered or taken to France. As it happened, most were abandoned to their fate, and the ones brought to France were treated like slaves.
But what matters most in de Gaulle’s view here is that he considers the question of Islam in the context of a possible migration, not as a religious question per se. In fact, in the decades following the Algerian war, during the 1960s and 1970s, when the migrants did come and the bitterness toward Algerians was at its worst and racism a daily reality in France, nobody spoke of “the Muslims”— except, perhaps, some of the repatriated French settlers, whose vision remained colored by imperial nostalgia. But for most of the French, the target of hatred was “the Arabs”—or, if one really wanted to be insulting, “les crouilles.” But as for “the Muslims,” they did not exist. That changed only in the early 1980s, with the rise of political Islam in Iran and above all in Algeria. Suspicion of Islam deepened when Algerian Islamists came to France in 1990.
The core issue is not Islamophobia but plastic identities, migrations, and changes.
The extreme right was always divided on the subject of Islam. In retrospect, Benoist’s writings look like the far right’s most powerful attempt to solve the contradiction at a time, in the 1990s, when it had reached its peak. Throughout this period and beyond it, the main danger in the view of the identitarians, as they are known in France, was what Benoist called “the ideology of the sameness”: U.S.-led globalization, to which political Islam looked like a form of resistance. But which was more to be feared—globalization or a Muslim invasion of Europe and, therefore, of the West?
After 9/11, while the far right in France began to benefit as much from the anguish the attack brought on as from the rampant French anti-Americanism it awoke, and Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, this dilemma became unsustainable.
So, yes, Tarrant and Camus are racist. But it’s a racism that David Duke and Louis Farrakhan could both agree on: it is called identity politics or separatism, and you find it in Islamist countries as well. The core issue is not Islamophobia but plastic identities, migrations, and changes.
The source of that separatism can be traced to still more French authors, including some praised, incidentally, by President Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon: one is the novelist Jean Raspail, whose terrible sci-fi book, The Camp of the Saints, written in the 1970s, anticipates Tarrant’s killings (the book recounts the exploits of a group of white French resisters who take up arms against the migrants and the “hippies” who support them); the other, and much more influential, is the intensely anti-Semitic journalist Charles Maurras.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Maurras was probably the first European thinker to mix high-culture critiques of modernity and the Enlightenment with the low, nationalist, popular anger at international finance and capitalism, then personified by Jewish bankers. Maurras was behind the cardinal notion that the real fight was not between the rich and the poor, or the bourgeois and the workers, but between “the real country”—the “real people”—and “the legal country,” by which he meant the country where a person’s identity, nationality, and rights are defined by law rather than by tradition. In other words, the legal country is the country of the cosmopolitan, fake elites, born out of the Enlightenment and determined to cheat the people and to “replace” them.
Interestingly enough, in November 2018, Renaud Camus published a book written in English whose title, You Will Not Replace Us!, was the slogan of the Charlottesville white supremacists during their march the year before. The “you” in that sentence were the Jews, said to secretly control world migration in order to ruin the West.
France is a much more dangerous country than the usual clichés about flânerie, galanterie, and the love of books and good food lead one to imagine. Or should we say that France’s tradition of political violence and populist fury is, as it were, the other side of the country’s legendary easy life? In the middle of the nineteenth century, the poet Charles Baudelaire invented both la flânerie and The Flowers of Evil. At the beginning of the twentieth century, while the belle époque was in full swing, prominent writers such as Maurice Barrès and Joris-Karl Huysmans regularly spoke of their “disgust for everything.” During the same period, Theodor Herzl, the future founder of political Zionism, then a simple correspondent for the Austrian press in Paris, wrote Arthur Schnitzler that the atmosphere in the City of Light was such that he thought it best to flee the place before being killed “as a financier, as a bourgeois or as a Jew.” With the exception of Arthur Rimbaud, the history of modernity in France has largely been written by people who intensely disliked or hated modernity—people who, from Honoré de Balzac to Baudelaire and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, also happened to be the country’s best minds.
After the fall of Vichy in 1944 and throughout much of the Cold War period, Gaullist and socialist narratives shaped France’s political identity, and the antimodernist tradition sank underground, into the writings of Binet, Benoit, and others. It began to revive in the 1990s—a time during which, coincidentally, antimodern political Islam also spread rapidly, both in Arab countries formerly under Soviet influence and in areas geographically close to France, such as Algeria.
Today, with the French antimodernist tradition exporting itself across the West—and a populist Islamist ideology also widely diffused—it is of the most vital importance, if we want to fight it, to understand what is really at play in this vicious dynamic of hate.