How the 'great replacement' conspiracy theory infiltrated France's presidential elections

6 min read
01 March, 2022
In-depth: Ahead of France's April presidential election, a far-right racist conspiracy theory has edged its way into mainstream political discourse.

Last month, during a campaign speech in front of thousands of people, French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse said two highly controversial words invoking a racist conspiracy theory: the 'great replacement'.

Originally used by the French far-right as a means to spread fear over immigration, the term “great replacement” refers to a highly racist and nationalistic theory that native, white Europeans are being outnumbered and replaced by non-white, non-European immigrants.

Pécresse, a right-wing politician of the Les Républicains party, has previously used the term, as has far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, to appeal to right-wing voters.

The term has been increasingly used over the past decade and has permeated political discourse in the run-up to April’s presidential election. 

First coined in 2010 by French far-right writer Renaud Camus, who published an entire book entitled “Le Grand Remplacement” the following year, the last ten years have seen the term become a staple of white supremacist discourse, spreading beyond French borders and embraced by the American and European alt-right.

"The term 'great replacement' refers to a highly racist and nationalistic theory that white Europeans are being outnumbered and replaced by non-white, non-European immigrants"

The theory became widely publicised after the 2019 Christchurch mosques massacres in New Zealand, where 51 Muslims attending prayer were killed by a white supremacist. The gunman had published a 74-page manifesto ranting against Muslims and immigrants, citing the 'great replacement' as a motivation for the attacks.

The theory itself relies on two foundational myths. The first is about demographics: due to supposedly large numbers of immigrants and a higher birth rate among immigrant populations, the “native”- or “white”- European population will soon be surpassed in number and have its culture overthrown, bringing the downfall of European civilisation.

The second one moves even deeper into conspiracy theory territory, alleging that immigrants will be assisted by the “globalised elites,” a group of rich people in France and beyond who have undefined vested interests in this replacement and who would organise together to make it happen.

While the term has been used in French politics before, the past year and lead up to the election have witnessed it make its way into the mainstream. Zemmour was the first to use it in his campaign and has been referring to it extensively, followed by other candidates espousing similarly racist views.

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However, the theory has also been invoked by candidates considered more “moderate” on the political spectrum, such as Pécresse, who has struggled to win votes and has been under pressure to tilt further to the right.

“It is an ideology that works in politics,” French historian and Assistant Director of the research organisation Conspiracy Watch, Valérie Igounet, told The New Arab. “We are in a race for votes, a one-upmanship which gangrenes and contaminates the right-wing. Pécresse obviously knew what she was saying.”

Although it is starting to become increasingly mainstream in some political circles, the conspiracy theory barely stands up to the most basic scrutiny. 

“First, what is a ‘native population’? France has always been a country of immigration,” Jean-Yves Camus, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told The New Arab.

While the term has been used in French politics before, the past year and lead up to the election have witnessed it make its way into the mainstream, with Eric Zemmour the first to use it in his campaign. [Getty]

“The Identitarians and Eric Zemmour always talk about the Muslim population in France, but we have a big presence of Chinese people in France, for example. Statistically, [the great replacement] is not a reality. The population of a country changes with time. Eric Zemmour himself grew up in Drancy with his own parents having come from Algeria; he is the living proof that people move.”

Practically, it also seems impossible to promise anything politically. “Marine Le Pen offers to prevent more people from coming to France, but the origin of the theory is that the replacement has already happened,” Camus added.

“How do you go back to how it was ‘before’? You send people ‘back home’, when they have been living here their whole life? Where do you send them? The way politicians use the expression radicalises people. They promise to end a situation that is first a fantasy, and second impossible to change without serious damage to the Rule of Law.”

Some far-right politicians in France have even used a largely misunderstood demographics report issued by the United Nations in 2000 to legitimise the conspiracy theory.

Entitled “Replacement Migration”, it studies possible scenarios about the increasing ageing of the European population in 50 years with a series of demographic projections, one of which estimates how many young migrants would be necessary to counteract the ageing population.

"In France, the impact of having politicians and right-wing media focusing on this theory is growing, with more and more people treating it as a reality instead of a fantasy"

“This scenario has been largely misunderstood,” French anthropologist and demographic sociologist François Héran told The New Arab.

“The report also talked about the extension of the retirement age, the increase in contributions and the employment of women, but it’s this scenario that attracted political attention. Jean-Marie Le Pen even talked about how the UN wanted to ‘submerge Europe with migrants’. It became the major scientific endorsement for the far-right, with this report being quoted as a world conspiracy.”

One of the key myths of the great replacement theory is that migrant communities tend to have higher birth rates. In reality, however, demographic studies show that the birth rate for second-generation women from immigrant backgrounds "aligns with the country they live in,” Héran added.

“In reality, the immigrants’ distribution is very uneven in France, so it might look to some people that the majority are foreign. It is also a more ‘visible’ change as we have less Spanish and Portuguese migrants and more North Africans, so it’s more complicated than just saying ‘people are wrong’. But the far-right deliberately ignores facts to prove that their great replacement theory is true, and it has spread in many countries.”

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In France, the impact of having politicians and right-wing media focusing on this theory is growing, with more and more people treating it as a reality instead of a fantasy. 

Despite the fact that less than 10% of the French population are immigrants, a survey made for far-right channel CNEWS this month showed that 48% of the population were worried about a 'great replacement' in France - nearly one in two people.

More and more, the great replacement theory is being used to win votes and monopolise the conversation on immigration, while avoiding more difficult conversations about the economy and other pressing issues facing the country.

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena