How far-right extremism in France is on the march

5 min read
12 December, 2023

At 1am, along deserted streets, hundreds of far-right activists armed with iron bars chanted "France is ours" as they walked towards a multicultural neighbourhood in Romans-sur-Isére, southeast France.

The incident took place on 25 November after a 16-year-old named Thomas, a local rugby player, had been stabbed to death a week earlier during a fight in the nearby village of Crépol.

Since then, dozens of gatherings organised to mourn the teenager’s death have turned into anti-immigration protests. Far-right groups have also mobilised in several French cities such as Lyon and Rennes, while far-right politicians have alleged a racial motive for the crime, which has not been confirmed.

"It's always the Thomases that die and always the Chahids that kill," Eric Zemmour, leader of far-right party Reconquête! (Reconquest) said in an interview following the incident.

"Ideas and hate speeches that would only be heard in secret locations a few years ago are now becoming normal and publicly acknowledged"

National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, said it was an “organised attack”, while her niece, far-right politician Marion Maréchal, denounced the stabbing as “anti-White racism”.

While far-right violence has always existed in France, extremist groups have seized upon this latest incident to mobilise and sow social disharmony.

In October, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson issued a stark warning about the rise of far-right extremism in Europe, warning that far-right terrorism is a “growing threat”.

David Guiraud, a politician in the left-wing La France Insoumise party (France unbowed), told The New Arab that he had filed a complaint against Zemmour for his comments, accusing him of racial and ethnic hatred.

There is, he adds, an increasing media acceptance of extremist ideas from the far-right.

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"Ideas and hate speeches that would only be heard in secret locations a few years ago are now becoming normal and publicly acknowledged," he told TNA.

"In my city in Roubaix, I'm seeing local Arabic shops being harassed and targeted," Guiraud said.

"Fascist factions are armed and targeting people. When other groups see what happened in Roman-sur-Isére, and the low consequences [for the people responsible], they will be motivated to take the streets, too."

Journalist and political activist Sihame Assbague, who has been fighting racism and Islamophobia in France for the last ten years, is fearful about the current political climate in France.

Far-right politician Eric Zemmour ran in the French presidential elections last year. [Getty]

"The violence at Romans-sur-Isère shows the strength of the far-right," she told TNA, with extremist parties and figures now a consistent presence within French politics.

The Arab community in France is often the target of extremist ideas, whether from the far-right, media, or even the state.

"It's not only organised right-wing groups that are targeting Arabs, it's also the average Frenchman," she says, arguing that there exists a "deeply rooted racism within French society", from the colonial era to modern France.

In late November, a 29-year-old French-Algerian gardener nearly died after his throat was cut by a man who attacked him in broad daylight while he was working near Paris. A video of the incident showed the attacker using racial slurs during the incident.

"The violence at Romans-sur-Isère shows the strength of the far-right"

"The history of France's Fifth Republic is rich with violence against Arabs [...] we could also talk about punitive expeditions when the police target Arabs and Blacks," Assbague said.

This summer, the killing by police of Nahel M, a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent, led to a wave of protests against police brutality and racism, which experts say has long been endemic.

For twenty years now, the French rapper Médine has used his music to highlight political issues of police brutality, islamophobia, racism, and the rise of the far-right.

"I am everything the far-right hates: I come from a popular neighbourhood, with Algerian descent and I am Muslim. People like me are proof that the integration model can and is successful," he told The New Arab in an exclusive interview.

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This summer, Médine was targeted by the far-right for his music and political ideas. The rapper believes he is a threat to the far-right's ideology, not only through his music but also because of who he is.

"I have a multicultural family, I celebrate the Galette des Rois [a traditional French party equivalent to the Epiphany], I am very active in civil society through NGOs that are supporting athletes. Every single success we build is a defeat for the far-right." 

The musician says that during a recent tour, in which he went from town to town across the country, he saw graffiti near his concert venues reading “Islam out of Europe”, while there was heavy pressure from some local politicians to cancel his shows.  

“When he was young, my father used to chase neo-Nazis and skinheads in the streets, now they are chasing Arabs,” he said.

Right-wing extremist posters from the Jeune Nation and the Parti Nationaliste Français are seen pasted along the Route Nationale 7 in the Var department, southeast France, last year. [Getty]

Médine also points to unrecognised wounds from France’s colonial past, saying the memories of 17 October 1961 are still “vivid”. On that day, as the Algerian War of Independence was nearing its end, the Paris police brutally repressed a demonstration of French Algerians in Paris, killing at least 50 people.

In response to the violent mobilisation of far-right extremist groups following the stabbing this month, France is seeking to ban three ultra-right and neo-Nazi groups for racially charged protests.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has even warned that "there is a mobilisation within the extreme right that would have us tip into civil war".

"I have never seen this. I have been doing this for almost twenty years, and I have never seen so much hatred and violence, without contradiction, without criticism, without opposition, really,” Médine said.

Amine Snoussi is a political analyst and independent journalist based in Tunis.

Follow him on Twitter: @amin_snoussi