How France's ‘great replacement’ theory conquered the global far right

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Contentious Fox News host Tucker Carlson often refers to it live on air. It propelled a white nationalist to commit the 2019 terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people. Now it’s resurfacing in its country of origin, where far-right pundit Eric Zemmour is propagating the theory on TV and social media. But what is the "great replacement" theory and how did it originate?

“Account suspended.” Two bold words that decorate Renaud Camus’ Twitter profile, blocking his access to the platform he uses to engage in political debates and advance his beliefs. Though arguably not as internationally known as Albert Camus, the theories that author Renaud Camus has written about have travelled far.

It was in his 2011 book “Le Grand Remplacement” that he first coined the term “the great replacement”, which became a rallying cry for the far right worldwide.

Though he refuses to admit his words incite hatred or violence, this is precisely why Twitter suspended his account at the end of October. Less than a week later, on November 4, Camus was tried for a second time in the southwest of France for inciting racial hatred after posting offensive comments on Twitter in 2019.

He has appealed a January 2020 verdict against him, and the court's decision will be announced on January 20, 2022. For now, his two-month prison sentence has been suspended.

‘Camus didn’t invent anything’

Rooted in racist nationalist views, the great replacement theory purports that an elitist group is colluding against white French and European people to eventually replace them with non-Europeans from Africa and the Middle East, the majority of whom are Muslim. Renaud Camus often refers to this as “genocide by substitution”.

Notions of the theory date as far back as 1900, when the father of French nationalism Maurice Barrès spoke about a new population that would take over, triumph and “ruin our homeland”.

In an article for daily newspaper Le Journal, he wrote: “The name of France might well survive; the special character of our country would, however, be destroyed, and the people settled in our name and on our territory would be heading towards destinies contradictory to the destinies and needs of our land and our dead."

At the time Barrès was writing, “anti-Semitism was extremely mainstream”, says Dr. Aurelien Mondon, a senior lecturer of politics at Bath University in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Barrès spoke about the idea of racial purity,” he says, which is why the theory of population replacement became so popular among the Nazis, for example.

But after World War II, the French far right needed a new discourse to move back into the mainstream. Shifting away from biological racism towards cultural racism, the replacement theory gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Nouvelle Droite (New Right) and some French intellectuals were trying to find ways to move away from the margins,” Mondon says. Over the years, these ideas spread among the far right, which was becoming more and more mainstream in France, eventually paving the way for Camus to publish his book on the topic without being disregarded as too radical.

“Camus didn’t invent anything,” Mondon explains. “He put concepts together and coined the phrase, but his theory is part of a much broader context that contributed to the reshaping of the far right [in France].”

Dodging the racism bullet

The replacement theory has made its way all around the world, becoming very popular among identitarian movements in Europe and the alt-right in the US. For Mondon, this was made possible by the way the far right adapted their stance on racism. Rather than speaking of racial or ethnic hierarchies, the discourse focussed more on cultures and cultural power.

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In a recent interview on French right-wing TV channel CNews, Camus claimed his theory wasn’t about race but about defending civilisation. “Racism is still a taboo in our societies,” Mondon explains, “Nobody wants to admit that they’re racist and nobody wants to be called a racist.”

“The people who watch that interview and who may fall for this moral panic, this idea that they’re going to be replaced ethnographically,” he says, “don’t want to be called racist and will say they’re defending civilisation.”

In the end, this works in their favour, because “it makes people feel good about themselves while allowing them to be prejudiced and racist, all while protecting their own privilege,” according to Mondon.

The end game

Camus has also sided with Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit who is expected to announce his candidacy for the upcoming French presidential elections. In fact, Zemmour has long been inspired by Camus and has propagated the replacement theory in his own books, “Le Suicide Français” (The French Suicide) and “Destin Français”(French Destiny).

But while Zemmour has made openly homophobic claims, Renaud Camus had a brief history as a gay icon in the 1970s and 1980s. He wrote for the French LGBT+ weekly magazine Gai Pied as a columnist and published an autobiographical novel in 1979 called “Tricks”, which gave detailed accounts of one-night stands with men in nightclub bathrooms and grimy apartments across the US and Europe.

This unholy alliance is also key to understanding how theories like the great replacement spread so easily. “People in the far right are happy with contradictions,” Mondon says. “People who are deeply anti-Semitic can ally with people who are Jewish because they share the same Islamophobia and that trumps it all. And vice versa, people who are deeply anti-Semitic and Islamophobic will sometimes ally with Muslim people because the anti-Semitism trumps it.”

For the far right, being contrarian is a strength, not a weakness. “It shows that they are willing to go beyond these contradictions to win on the racialist agenda,” Mondon explains. “This is the end game for them.”

So despite the fact that the great replacement theory is conspiratorial, seeing as only 9.6 percent of the French population was made up of immigrants in 2018, it is a tool to get into a position of power. And for someone like Zemmour, that is the end game.

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