October 20, 2019

The Father of ‘the Great Replacement,’ the Far Right’s Favorite Slogan

The Father of ‘the Great Replacement,’ the Far Right’s Favorite Slogan


PLIEUX, France — Though the writer had already lived in his castle for a quarter of a century, it was only three years ago that he finally restored it to its original purpose as a fortress.

The writer, Renaud Camus, rebuilt the top 10 feet of the 14th-century tower, giving him an even more commanding view of his surroundings: the village of 40 souls below; the Pyrenees, faintly visible some 100 miles south despite the midsummer haze; and, in every direction, the peaceful, rolling hills of the “eternal France” dear to him.

Sometimes he climbed all the way up to read. A pair of binoculars lay waiting on a desk, and he joked about using them to spy on people’s “indiscretions.”

But up in his castle, the France that Mr. Camus perceived has made him one of the most influential thinkers on the far right in his own country and elsewhere. In his writings, he describes an ongoing “invasion” of France by immigrants bent on “conquest” of its white, European population. To him, the immigrants are “colonizing” France by giving birth to more children and making its cities, towns — and even villages — unlivable.

Others have espoused similar ideas. But Mr. Camus’s portrayal of demographic change — le “grand remplacement,” or the supposed “great replacement” of France’s original population by newer arrivals, mostly from Africa — has become an extremist talking point, cited by mass killers in distant parts of the world.

“It’s a slogan that dramatizes the situation, talking of great replacement the same way we speak of the great barbarian invasions,” said Rudy Reichstadt, an expert on political extremism at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute in Paris. “Now, if you go to a horse race betting bar and talk politics, and you mention the great replacement, people will understand what you mean.”

The idea of the great replacement has directly influenced French politicians and thinkers. Interpreted and repackaged across the internet, it has resonated widely beyond France, including in white supremacist circles.

The men held in two recent mass shootings — at a Walmart in El Paso and at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand — both referred to the “great replacement” and the need to defend white populations against invading outsiders.

While decrying the killings, Mr. Camus said he had no regrets about coming up with the term.

“The great replacement has become a household word,” he said. “I take responsibility for it. I believe in its relevance.”

Stroking his white beard, Mr. Camus sat in his expansive study, filling half the top floor of his castle with books and a handful of African masks. In contrast to the harsh words he chooses to describe France’s immigrants, he spoke gently and softly, and sometimes with the mannerisms of another era. He and his partner of two decades, Pierre, addressed each other as “vous,” though they said they sometimes slipped into the informal “tu.”

Ensconced in his castle in southern France, in a village an hour’s drive across country roads from the nearest train station, Mr. Camus, 73, is perhaps an unlikely source of inspiration for the world’s far right and white supremacists. Until a few years ago, Mr. Camus was known, mainly by other French writers, as a novelist and a pioneering writer of gay literature. An early book about his sexual experiences, called “Tricks,” remains his most translated work.

Growing up in a conservative rural town in central France, Mr. Camus went to Paris in the 1960s and found a niche in the capital’s literary and artistic scene. He befriended Roland Barthes, who wrote the preface for “Tricks.” As a member of the Socialist Party, he became active in politics on the left.

Still, Mr. Camus longed to return to the countryside. He sold his Paris apartment and, in 1992, used the money to buy and restore the castle in Plieux, fulfilling a lifelong fantasy.

A few years after moving to Plieux, he had an epiphany that would shape his political views. While visiting a 1,000-year-old village in southern France, he said he saw a group of veiled women milling around a fountain.

“And in the ancient windows — beautiful, paired gothic windows — veiled women would appear all of a sudden,” he said. “It was really the population of eternal France that was changing.”

That led to the formation in 2002 of his own political party, l’In-nocence, which calls for an end to all immigration and promotes remigration, the return of immigrants and their children to their countries of origin.

But it was a decade later, when he publicly began using the term “great replacement” and wrote a book with the same title, that his influence in France began to be felt.

The great replacement, he wrote, indicates the “replacement of a people, the indigenous French people, by one or others; of its culture by the loss of its cultural identity through multiculturalism.”

He says he sees no contradiction between his earlier life as a gay writer on the left and his current role as an ideological beacon for the right, including violent extremists. He contends he has always told “the hard truths.”

Previous generations of European immigrants had been drawn by “love” for France, he wrote. But the newer arrivals since the 1970s — mostly from France’s former colonies in the Maghreb and in sub-Saharan Africa — didn’t come “as friends.” Instead, he declared, they came as conquerors and colonizers, filled with hatred and a desire to punish France. He singled out Muslims for “not wanting to integrate” into French society.

According to government data, immigrants now make up about 10 percent of France’s population, many of them nonwhite, up from about 7 percent in the 1970s, or 5 percent in 1946, the year of Mr. Camus’s birth — a steady rise, though far from the overwhelming one described by Mr. Camus, his critics say.

Mr. Camus’s ideas — and his subsequent call to support Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Rally party — turned him into a pariah in France’s literary and media circles.

His longtime publishers dropped him, forcing him to publish on his own. “The Great Replacement” was never translated into English. Invitations from mainstream news shows dried up. Lifelong friendships came to an end.

But even as Mr. Camus became toxic, his phrase gained traction, first on French far-right websites, like “Observatoire de Grand Remplacement.” Politicians on the right and far right, including Ms. Le Pen, dropped references to the term.

Then “great replacement” slipped into the mainstream. While Mr. Camus’s books went unsold, best-selling writers, like Eric Zemmour, have expounded on the idea.

Some literary critics also saw the great replacement’s influence in Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 best seller, “Submission,” a novel that imagines a France led by an Islamist government. In the novel, which includes both real and fictional characters, Mr. Camus makes an appearance as Marine Le Pen’s speechwriter.

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said that the author of “The Great Replacement” viewed the world from the perspective of a novelist and aesthete.

“He should become aware that in our universe, where everything happens in real time, what you say from the position of an aesthete or a writer, can instantly be transformed into a gun and bullets,” said the expert, who is not related to Renaud Camus.

Isolated further in his castle, Mr. Camus grew even more removed from the France he described — one filled, he believes, with people of Arab and African descent burning with hatred for France and plotting its conquest. In fact, he acknowledged that his understanding of such people was based mainly on Twitter and Facebook. He said he almost never read newspapers or watched television.

“Distance is very, very necessary for observation,” he said.

Still, even holed up in a medieval castle, there was a limit to distance. As a recipient of government funds to help renovate his castle, Mr. Camus has had to open it to the public for part of the year.

And so, on a recent afternoon, Mr. Camus and his partner found themselves squeezed inside the top of the refurbished tower, along with six eager tourists. A couple cornered Mr. Camus next to a window, peppering him with questions about the castle.

Like many other fortified castles, its military capability — including the top 10 feet of the tower — was eliminated following a government edict in the 17th century. Back then, the fear was an uprising by the nobility, the castle owners.

By rebuilding the tower, Mr. Camus had restored its defenses. But on this day at least, in this corner of France, there was no hint of a threat on the horizon.



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