On 13th June 2020, as thousands of people filled the streets of Paris to march against racism and police brutality, a small group of people deployed from a roof a red-and-white banner that read: “Justice pour les victimes du racisme anti-blanc” (Justice for the victims of anti-white racism). Underneath was a hashtag, #WhiteLivesMatter, articulating an outright rejection of the slogan that is echoing across the world to protest the global injustices against Black lives. The banner did not stay there for long: residents of the building started cutting into it from their balconies, before Acrobate94, a YouTuber known for his gravity-defying stunts, climbed the building to unhook it completely. As the banner fell, rapturous applause erupted from the crowd of demonstrators below.
But for those who decided to adorn a facade with incendiary words they knew would encounter resistance, the banner’s quick, theatrical downfall was nothing to grieve over. To the contrary, it was the point. Media attention is a precious commodity in the information age, and nothing attracts coverage more than controversy, especially when it’s sprinkled with a bit of acrobatics. After all, provocative statements only gain visibility and traction through being publicly, forcefully challenged. The banner was only a bid for attention, the latest in a long series of similar antics by Génération Identitaire, a white nationalist group that cultivates a close but covert relationship with France’s far-right political faction.
Founded in 2012 by Julien Langella, Benoît Vardon, Guillaume Jannuzzi, Damien Rieu, Arnaud Delrieux, Alban Ferrari and Pierre Larti, Génération Identitaire are a neo-fascist, islamophobic group implanted across the country, with headquarters in Lyon. Originally conceived as the youth branch of Bloc Identitaire, a far-right movement turned political party, Génération Identitaire became its own organisation in 2016, having earned a claim to fame its forebear never attained. Since its inception, the group has conducted a wide range of highly-publicised operations against what it perceives to be the twin evils of Islamisation and unbridled immigration.
In October 2012, members occupied a mosque’s construction site in the town of Poitiers, flying banners about the threat posed by Islam. In March 2016, they blocked three bridges to halt the movement of migrants from the makeshift camp known as the ‘Calais jungle’ to the city centre, where they claim refugees terrorised residents. In April 2018, they obstructed an Alpine pass where migrants were believed to cross from Italy into France, brandishing banners with the message: “Frontière fermée. Vous ne ferez pas de l’Europe votre maison. Hors de question. Rentrez chez vous.” (Border closed. You won’t make Europe your home. No way. Go home). They also regularly conduct patrolling operations, notably in Lyon, with the intention of securitising cities in the face of police inaction against the “racaille” – a racist term used to criminalise young Black and Arab men by associating them with drug-dealing, petty crime, and general aimlessness.
These few examples highlight three important features of Génération Identitaire’s modus operandi: performative displays of vigilantism, the pervasive use of banners, and an emphasis on symbolic rather than literal action (their goal was never to actually intercept migrants, only to make it known they could).
In addition to these publicity stunts, Génération Identitaire have an important social media presence, the tech-savviness of its young members having been effectively put to use. Members are active on Twitter, where they spin information to conform to their ideals, argue with strangers about said ideals, and try to recruit. Almost all of them have a link in their bio to a WhatsApp chat, which is supposed to be the primary channel to get in touch with the organisation. I sent a message inquiring about the percentage of women in their ranks, which went unanswered, although the two blue checks inform me that it has been read. On their website, they also encourage people to contact them via Telegram to circumvent censorship, to which they claim they are subjected by France’s globalist, multiculturalist establishment.
In reality, despite their self-vision as oppressed truth-tellers, Génération Identitaire are far from being silenced. Indeed, although they believe themselves to be in an asymmetrical conflict with an elite that supposedly tries to muzzle them – and whom they hold responsible for the transformation of the country into a multi-ethnic, Islamic society – Génération Identitaire have regularly benefited from the support of the powerful. Eric Zemmour, a well-known and influential journalist who thrives on inflammatory statements, has repeatedly defended the white nationalist organisation’s controversial actions on the various television programmes he is a fixture of. Philippe de Villiers, a former minister and founder of a popular leisure complex, recently appeared on a news segment to profess his appreciation for Génération Identitaire.
Such instances of wholehearted support may appear anecdotal, and they indeed might be. Whilst Génération Identitaire benefits from the undying admiration of only a few, the organisation profits much more from the type of backing that isn’t overt, but manifests itself in thinly-veiled complicity and leniency. The organisation maintains a close working relationship with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), previously known as the National Front (FN), even though the party’s rebranding aspirations have sometimes required officials to distance themselves from the group’s contentious reputation. Philippe Vardon, RN candidate in Nice’s municipal elections and a former high-profile figure of the white nationalist movement, has notably deemed his identitarian past a mistake of his youth. Yet, he continues to peddle the same rhetoric of Islamisation, this time through the official and potentially more far-reaching channels of electoral campaigning.
Critics have also noted what they perceived to be law enforcement’s permissive and amiable attitude towards Génération Identitaire. On 13th June, the banner-flying counter-protesters were arrested and escorted away in a police van, where they took a smiling selfie. They eventually avoided custody, drawing outrage on social media and prompting debates surrounding police indifference towards and even hidden approval of far-right activity. Moreover, although a few operations have resulted in legal action taken against the group, Génération Identitaire have recently celebrated a major win against Poitiers’ Muslim community, whom they taunted in 2012 by occupying the mosque’s construction site. The five members who were charged with incitement to racial hatred saw their convictions being overturned in June, the statute of limitations having passed.
Génération Identitaire are therefore far from being under siege, and especially not by the sections of society that have the power to oppress, silence or condemn. But not only are they benefiting from the support of the powerful – either in covert or overt forms – they too are the powerful. In fact, the group contradicts what is commonly assumed about the far-right: the logic of the ‘left-behinds’. The ‘left-behinds’ are the economically deprived working-class young men who blame immigrants for the societal ills brought on by capitalist globalisation. They are the people to whom anti-immigration rhetoric is appealing because it designates an easily identifiable culprit, a group onto which to project their anger and hold responsible for an economic hardship they struggle to make sense of.
Studies have shown that resource shrinkage and opportunity shortage contribute to an understanding of the “other” as a threat, an appraisal from which emerge xenophobic and racist attitudes. It was also found that a disenchanted working-class is likely to attribute the source of its economic grievances to immigrants, a process known as scapegoating. As the Western world attempted to grapple with a resurgence of populism throughout the 2010s – which culminated in Trump’s election and the EU referendum in 2016 – journalists and scholars began to interpret the motivations of Trump voters, Brexiteers, and supporters of far-right parties across Europe through the lens of the ‘left-behind’ logic. It became accepted wisdom that the white working-class’ experience of economic anxiety fuels resentment and sentiments of injustice, which far-right movements capitalise on to grow their membership.
But Génération Identitaire is markedly different. Working-class identity is not what is bringing these people together, nor is addressing economic disadvantage the animating force of the movement. The people at the helm of the organisation are white-collar, university-educated men. Co-founder Julien Langella notably studied political science at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) in Aix en Provence, and before they were both fired for their ties to the white nationalist organisation, spokesperson Romain Espino worked as a bank advisor whilst co-founder Pierre Larti was a Human Resources manager.
On Génération Identitaire’s website, there is no talk of the sombre fate of the white working-class, nor of the various economic challenges they face. Instead, the group rails against mass immigration and cultural uniformisation, but never with regards to the economic effects of those processes. “We declare war on those who want to uproot us and make us forget who we are”, the presentation on the website reads. But their rhetoric is not steeped in nostalgia in the way that Make America Great Again is. Although they are inspired by mythologised versions of the past – Charles Martel, an historical figure beloved by the French far-right for having repelled a Moorish invasion in 732 AD, is regularly invoked – they do not long for a return to it. Instead, they think of heritage through the prism of destiny, linking a noble past to a glorious future.
Their stated goal is the “reconquête”, or recapture, of that destiny. Underlying their beliefs is not any form of economic anxiety. Instead, it’s a conviction that French identity – the white, Catholic kind – is under attack. Immigrants are not despised for taking jobs but simply by virtue of existing, for their very presence is perceived as a threat to a traditional way of life France has allegedly strayed away from. Many of the organisation’s members have notably contributed to the popularisation of the the Grand Remplacement conspiracy theory, which posits the deliberate, elite-engineered substitution of the white French population by African immigrants for the purpose of destroying European civilisation. The source of Génération Identitaire’s hatred is not material, it’s ideological. And this is precisely what makes far-right movements of this kind uniquely dangerous.
Indeed, resentment over economic deprivation can, at least in theory, be remedied or alleviated. If there was a political motivation to do so, tangible solutions could be found to provide opportunities to ‘left-behinds’, to break the cycle of the white working-class having to identify a culprit for the financial destitution and societal alienation they experience. Resentment that is untethered to material grievances, however, cannot be mitigated in the same way. The economically disgruntled are, to a certain extent, contingent xenophobes. Their anti-immigration stance being directly tied to financial difficulties, the improvement of a dire economic situation would theoretically encourage greater tolerance. Identitarians on the other hand are unconditional xenophobes, their hatred consistent and inalterable by personal or societal circumstances. When it is the loss of a civilisation that is mourned, rather than a lack of opportunities, no tangible solutions can be offered.
Whilst Génération Identitaire’s operations cannot on their own generate lasting or extensive damage, the real risk comes from the progressive infiltration of white nationalist ideas into the mainstream. As mentioned above, the support the group gets from certain political figures or high-profile journalists, and the protection they seem to enjoy from police, indicate that the spread of their beliefs is already well on its way. The danger posed by Génération Identitaire cannot be minimised or dismissed. Their publicity stunts are not harmless, their rhetoric not innocuous. The exclusionary definition of national identity that Génération Identitaire articulates and promotes has the potential to cause real harm to the communities whose existence the group objects to. Because the organisation’s goal is not to reclaim a place in the nation for the ‘left-behinds’, but rather to redefine the nation itself, it constitutes a new, singular threat. One that France may not be willing, or even equipped, to face.