Although Camus presents his definition of “Frenchness” as reasonable and urbane, it is of a piece with a less benign perspective on ethnicity, Islam, and territory which has circulated in his country for decades. Never the sole preserve of the far right, this view was conveyed most bluntly in a 1959 letter, from Charles de Gaulle to his confidant Alain Peyrefitte, which advocates withdrawal from French Algeria:
It is very good that there are yellow Frenchmen, black Frenchmen, brown Frenchmen. They prove that France is open to all races and that she has a universal mission. But [it is good] on condition that they remain a small minority. Otherwise, France would no longer be France. We are, after all, primarily a European people of the white race, Greek and Latin culture, and the Christian religion.
De Gaulle then declares that Muslims, “with their turbans and djellabahs,” are “not French.” He asks, “Do you believe that the French nation can absorb 10 million Muslims, who tomorrow will be 20 million and the day after 40 million?” If this were to happen, he concludes, “my village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, but Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées!”
…Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, Richard Spencer, the thirty-nine-year-old white nationalist who has become the public face of the American alt-right, was sucker-punched by a protester while being interviewed on a street corner in Washington, D.C. A video of the incident went viral, but little attention was paid to what Spencer said on the clip. “I’m not a neo-Nazi,” he declared. “They kind of hate me, actually.” In order to deflect the frequent charge that he is a racist, he defines himself with the very term that Camus rejects: identitarian. The word sidesteps the question of racial superiority and co-opts the left’s inclusive language of diversity and its critique of forced assimilation in order to reclaim the right to difference—for whites.
Identitarianism is a distinctly French innovation. In 1968, in Nice, several dozen far-right activists created the Research and Study Group for European Civilization, better known by its French acronym, grece. The think tank eventually began promoting its ideas under the rubric the Nouvelle Droite, or the New Right. One of its founders, and its most influential member, was Alain de Benoist, a hermetic aristocrat and scholar who has written more than a hundred books. In “View from the Right” (1977), Benoist declared that he and other members of grece considered “the gradual homogenization of the world, advocated and realized by the two-thousand-year-old discourse of egalitarian ideology, to be an evil.”
…Although Benoist claims not to be affiliated with the alt-right—or even to understand “what Richard Spencer can know or have learned from my thoughts”—he has travelled to Washington, D.C., to speak at the National Policy Institute, a white-nationalist group run by Spencer, and he has sat for long interviews with Jared Taylor, the founder of the virulently white-supremacist magazine American Renaissance. In one exchange, Taylor, who was educated in France, asked Benoist how he saw himself “as different from identitarians.” Benoist responded, “I am aware of race and of the importance of race, but I do not give to it the excessive importance that you do.” He went on, “I am not fighting for the white race. I am not fighting for France. I am fighting for a world view. . . . Immigration is clearly a problem. It gives rise to much social pathologies. But our identity, the identity of the immigrants, all the identities in the world have a common enemy, and this common enemy is the system that destroys identities and differences everywhere. This system is the enemy, not the Other.”
…One of the group’s founders, Guillaume Faye, a journalist with a Ph.D. from Sciences-Po, split off and began releasing explicitly racist books. In a 1998 tract, “Archeofuturism,” he argued, “To be a nationalist today is to assign this concept its original etymological meaning, ‘to defend the native members of a people.’ ” The book, which appeared in English in 2010, argues that “European people” are “under threat” and must become “politically organized for their self-defense.” Faye assures native Frenchmen that their “sub-continental motherland” is “an organic and vital part of the common folk, whose natural and historical territory—whose fortress, I would say—extends from Brest to the Bering Strait.”
Faye, like Renaud Camus, is appalled by the dictates of modern statecraft, which define nationality in legal rather than ethnic terms. The liberal American writer Sasha Polakow-Suransky, in his recent book, “Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy,” quotes Camus lamenting that “a veiled woman speaking our language badly, completely ignorant of our culture” could declare that she is just as French as an “indigenous” man who is “passionate for Roman churches, and for the verbal and syntactic delicacies of Montaigne and Rousseau, for Burgundy wines, for Proust, and whose family has lived for generations in the same valley.” What appalls Camus, Polakow-Suransky notes, is that “legally, if she has French nationality, she is completely correct.”
Faye’s work helps to explain the rupture that has emerged in many Western democracies between the mainstream right, which may support strict enforcement of immigration limits but does not inherently object to the presence of Muslims, and the alt-right, which portrays Muslim immigration as an existential threat. In this light, the growing admiration by Western conservatives for the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is easier to comprehend. Not only do thinkers like Faye admire Putin as an emblem of proudly heterosexual white masculinity; they fantasize that Russian military might will help create a “Eurosiberian” federation of white ethno-states. “The only hope for salvation in this dark age of ours,” Faye has declared, is “a protected and self-centered continental economic space” that is capable of “curbing the rise of Islam and demographic colonization from Africa and Asia.” In Faye’s 2016 book, “The Colonisation of Europe,” he writes, of Muslims in Europe, “No solution can be found unless a civil war breaks out.”
…Richard Spencer told me, “I would say that the alt-right in the United States is radically un-conservative.” Whereas the American conservative movement celebrates “the eternal value of freedom and capitalism and the Constitution,” Spencer said, he and his followers were “willing to use socialism in order to protect our identity.” He added, “Many of the countries that lived under Soviet hegemony are actually far better off, in terms of having a protected identity, than Western Europe or the United States.”
Spencer said that “clearly racialist” writers such as Benoist and Faye were “central influences” on his own thinking as an identitarian. He first discovered the work of Nouvelle Droite figures in the pages of Telos, an American journal of political theory. Most identitarians have a less scholarly bent. In 2002, a right-wing French insurrectionary, Maxime Brunerie, shot at President Jacques Chirac as he rode down the Champs-Élysées; the political group that Brunerie was affiliated with, Unité Radicale, became known as part of the identitaire movement. In 2004, a group known as the Bloc Identitaire became notorious for distributing soup containing pork to the homeless, in order to exclude Muslims and Jews. It was the sort of puerile joke now associated with alt-right pranksters in America such as Milo Yiannopoulos.
Copycat groups began emerging across Europe. In 2009, a Swedish former mining executive, Daniel Friberg, founded, in Denmark, the publishing house Arktos, which is now the world’s largest distributor of far- and alt-right literature. The son of highly educated, left-leaning parents, Friberg grew up in a wealthy suburb of Gothenburg. He embraced right-wing thought after attending a diverse high school, which he described as overrun with crime. In 2016, he told the Daily Beast, “I had been taught to think multiculturalism was great, until I experienced it.”
Few European nations have changed as drastically or as quickly as Sweden. Since 1960, it has added one and a half million immigrants to its population, which is currently just under ten million; a nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats, has become the country’s main opposition group. During this period, Friberg began to devour books on European identity—specifically, those of Benoist and Faye, whose key works impressed him as much as they impressed Richard Spencer. When Friberg launched Arktos, he acquired the rights to books by Benoist and Faye and had them translated into Swedish and English. Spencer told me that Arktos “was a very important development” in the international popularization of far-right identitarian thought…
On August 11th, the Unite the Right procession marched through the campus of the University of Virginia. White-supremacist protesters mashed together Nazi and Confederate iconography while chanting variations of Renaud Camus’s grand remplacement credo: “You will not replace us”; “Jews will not replace us.” Few, if any, of these khaki-clad young men had likely heard of Guillaume Faye, Renaud Camus, or Alain de Benoist. They didn’t know that their rhetoric had been imported from France, like some dusty wine. But they didn’t need to. All they had to do was pick up the tiki torches and light them.
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