The Poisonous Roots of the Great Replacement Theory

It all started in France. The Great Replacement Theory is one of those avalanches that start on the pages published by some right-wing intellectual to then assume a life of their own until they appear on the internet. It then happens that from success in chat rooms linked to marginal social network websites, the most improbable and dangerous theories assume the form of a young man armed to the teeth who enters a supermarket in Buffalo where he massacres African-Americans. Another concrete form assumed by creations such as the Great Replacement Theory is the approval of politicians or political parties that flirt with certain narratives. These theories do not contain anything very original and very often share an anti-Semitic subtext.

Let us return to France.  In “L’appel du soldat”, a novel by the nationalist (patriot) intellectual Maurice Barrès, published in the 20th century, the words Great Replacement are not used, but there is a mention of the danger of the French people’s temperament being corrupted by immigration. In 1971 Jean Raspail (far less important than the homonymous Jean Francois) was on holiday on the Cote d’Azur and imagined what would happen if the earth’s deprived citizens had landed en masse between Nice and Cannes.

Two years later he published a novel that started with boats filled with Indian children sailing to Europe, to end with a generalised invasion of immigrants wanting Western standards of living but rejected its culture, ensured that the queen of England’s son married a Pakistani girl and created a French government called “Multicultural Municipality”. In 2001 the book was republished with a new preface by the author that made the story all the more unpalatable as far as its racist contents were concerned, so much so that the publisher tried not to publish it. As in previous years, the novel was a significant success and Raspail earned the nickname “the prophet” in French right wing nationalist circles.

In 2011 the theory fully assumed its meaning with the publication of the essay entitled “The Great Replacement” by Renaud Camus (another with the same name). A former socialist and an activist in the homosexual movement of the 1960s, born to a conservative family, Camus published successful books about his experiences as a homosexual, but having retired to live in the countryside he began to allow himself to make anti-Semitic insinuations that then took shape as a theory in his 2011 essay. The theory is easily explained: a left-wing elite works on replacing white Europeans with immigrants who are mainly Muslims, “genocide by replacement” is enacted so as to have more docile and cheaper workers and citizens. One should not forget also the circulation in the early years 2000 of the so-called “Kalergi Plan”, the redrafting in conspiratorial and ethnic replacement style of the ideas of Baron Kalergi on pan-Europeanism. Conspiracy theories multiply in times of crisis.

The tenuous link with the reality of the Great Replacement Theory is that it is based on the observation of real phenomena: globalization, international migrations, the aging of the white population in the United States and in Europe are all real phenomena. The idea that there are obscure élites manoeuvring the world and that immigration is a plan organised by someone is therefore perfect for taking advantage of the fear experienced by segments of the population frighted by change and to return legitimacy to old-fashioned ideas that have become toxic since World War II.

Camus’ theory has had some success, but his ability to penetrate the corners of politics is increasing during years in which French culture and media churn out personalities with ideas similar to his – the best known is Eric Zemmour, initially an author and a successful polemicist (“French suicide”), then a TV personality and finally an extreme right-wing candidate in the presidential elections. In the meantime the theory has been translated into English and spread by American right-wing websites and groups perfectly at ease with the idea of replacement enacted by “liberal billionaires from New York” working hard to corrupt the United States’ original characteristics. The American Right imagines in fact that “Americans” are exclusively the descendants of white Protestants and northern Europeans.

And so, during years in which social and political polarisation increased in the USA, the theory became something normally used in leaflets, in memes and in the slogans of those organisations and groups that grew in the shadows of the Trump presidency. “You will not replace us”, shout the groups of right-wing students protesting in various universities and the theory has broken into the mainstream media and the public discourse.  Parallelly, however, fear of being replaced by Muslims because of the Jews is making its way into chatrooms and 4Chan websites. And so since 2018 this theory has also been appearing in posts and “manifestos” left by lone wolves who massacre Jews, Hispanics and African-Americans. In Pittsburgh, Rob Browser killed 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue after leaving a post on Gab (another marginal social network) in which he accused the Jewish-American organisation HIAS of bringing in “invaders to kill us”. The three massacres in 2019, of Muslims in Christchurch in New Zealand, where 51 people died in the Al Nur Mosque, of Hispanics in El Paso, of Jews in California, are all linked to the Great Replacement Theory in the delirium of those who carried them out. On May 14th it was Payton Gendron’s turn with his live Twitch while he killed 13 African-Americans in a supermarket in Buffalo.

Both Payton and Brenton Harrison Tennant (Christchurch) declared in their manifestos the will to fight replacement and were inspired by each other or by Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who in 2011 killed more than 70 people between Oslo and the island of Utoya. The manifesto of about 70 pages published by Tennant is called precisely “The Great Replacement” and the live streaming of his massacre directly inspired Peyton. In this sense the dynamics are very similar to those of Islamist lone wolves who organised or have tried to organise attacks in Europe in recent years. The other element these terrorist murderers share is a revolutionary mindset: they all believe they are part of an avant-garde prepared to fight supreme evil. This reminds one of the various American militias that, depending on the historical period, have had as their enemies black people, Washington and the Federal State, banks, immigrants and Muslims.

These massacres have not prevented American politicians and personalities from relaunching this theory. The most famous among them is perhaps Tucker Carlson, the most popular personality on Fox News. Carlson is a Trumpian journalist par excellence, including his sense of ridicule and abuse of facts – he defended himself as follows in court: I am not credible, everyone knows that what I do is not journalism. Carlson’s version concerns the Democrats who are allegedly relaxing immigration laws (false) to replace American voters with Hispanics. The most recent politician to have flirted with this theory is instead JD Vance, famous all over the world for having written a good book (Hillbilly Elegy) in which he narrates and explains the anger felt by white Americans. After this success, Vance has become a political personality who angers those he describes in his book and recently won the senate primaries in Ohio. There is the risk that in the mid-term elections the state in which the outcome of the presidential elections is decided may elect a man who believes in the Great Replacement Theory. Another replacement champion is Florida’s representative Matt Gaetz, another loyal Trump follower.

The list could be longer, but what needs to be conveyed is the spreading of this theory and the ability extreme ideas have to penetrate the upper echelons of American institutions. One must be careful however, while it is true that in the U.S. and in New Zealand these ideas have resulted in massacres, not even European nations beyond France are immune. At times things distant from us leave us speechless, make us smile, thinking it could never happen to us. And yet Hungary has elected for three consecutive terms a politician – Viktor Orban – who uses concepts very similar to those of the Great Replacement, and, should you be inclined to search this on line, you would find many statements or political rallies in which the leaders of the Italian Right Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini speak specifically of replacement. A few examples? In 2017, sharing footage from the TV show “La gabbia”, Matteo Salvini wrote on his Facebook page “Replacement of the people! That is what is hidden behind the rhetoric of the do-gooders.” A year later, as a minister, the League’s leader tweeted: “Can I fight against a billionaire speculator who wants to fill Europe with fake refugees? Or am I a NAZI?”. There is no mention of the theory here, but there are some key elements of it: the grand old billionaire (Jewish) and the invasion. In a post on Facebook in 2016, Giorgia Meloni spoke of “evidence of ethnic replacement” while at a political rally in 2017 she impeccably explained the theory in a minute (strong people in power, large amounts of capital, planned invasion, low-cost workers, all the elements were there). It is worth reminding that the former is the leader of an influential party in Italy’s governing coalition, the latter is the leader of the political party currently leading in all polls, ahead of general elections due next winter.


Cover Photo: Renaud Camus stands next to members of far-right movement “La ligue du Midi” during a protest against French migrants and refugees policy (Pascal Guyot / AFP).

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