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'The threat is real' - The worrying growth of violent far-right activism in France

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
'The threat is real' - The worrying growth of violent far-right activism in France
Members of now-banned far right group Generation Identitaire. Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP

After violent clashes involving extreme right and neo-Nazi groups following the killing of a teenage boy, we examine the worrying growth of the 'ultra right' in France.

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France's interior minister said on Tuesday that he would ask for three right-wing extremist groups to be dissolved following violent demonstrations over the weekend.

Following the death of a teenage boy named Thomas in a brawl at a village party - an event seized on by far-right politicians who believe the killing had a racial element - around 100 extreme-right activists travelled to the nearby town of Romans-sur-Isère over the weekend, with violent clashes.

The violence follows a number of events involving the ultra-right in France in the past 12 months; a shooting that killed three people at a Kurdish cultural centre, arrests of armed people after the World Cup semi-final, the trial of a group of far-right activists who allegedly plotted to kill president Emmanuel Macron and the reappearance in Paris of a far-right students' union.

France's Interior Minister has spoken out about the threat of violence from people with far-right links and the security services have stepped up monitoring of what has known in France as the "ultra-droite" - people with far-right views who become involved in violence, conspiracies or terrorist activity. 

"The French government is worried about far-right violence, and it is right to be," said The Local's politics expert John Lichfield.

An estimated 3,300 people in France belong to extreme-right movements, of whom 1,300 are on a police watchlist, according to a recent parliamentary report.

We spoke to two academics in January 2023 who study the far-right in France about the threat of violence, and the impact of the recent electoral success of Marine Le Pen's party on the violent extremists of the far-right. 

Although the threat of far-right violence and terror attacks is far from new - and is not only a French problem - recent months have seen several worrying developments, in addition to the violence following the death of Thomas.

In January 2023 the trial began of a group of 13 members of a far-right Facebook group who allegedly plotted to kill Macron and stage a coup.  

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Shortly before Christmas three people were killed after a Frenchman opened fire on a Kurdish cultural centre in Paris. Gérald Darmanin, the French Interior Minister, said that the "odious attack" had "clearly targeted foreigners" and the attacker admitted to police that his motives were racist.

Earlier in December 2022, 38 people with far-right ties were arrested for possessing weapons in the vicinity of the Champs-Elysées after the semi-final of the World Cup between France and Morocco - 15 of them were on a security watchlist.

2022 also saw the return of a previously dormant far-right group. Leaflets featuring a black rat logo and slogans encouraging people to "take back our universities" and "expel the leftists" were passed out in Paris by GUD (Groupe Union Défense), a French far-right students' union first formed in the 1960s.

The slogans were replicas of the catchphrases put out by another far-right group twenty years prior, Unité Radicale, whose member, Maxime Brunerie, attempted to assassinate the former French president, Jacques Chirac in 2002, explained Nicolas Lebourg, historian and expert on the French far-right, to Libération.

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The rise of the French ultra-right

"The threat is real," said Stéphane François, a professor at Université de Mon and expert on far-right radicalisation and extremist groups, in an interview with The Local.  "Far-right radicalisation in France has been growing for the last 20 years, since 9/11."

After a peak in violent far-right activity during the Algerian war in the 1960s levels of extremism fell, but after a lengthy plateau it has been steadily rising since the beginning of the 21st century, said François.

According to reporting by Radio France, who cited estimates from French intelligence forces, there are around 3,000 people in France associated with the militant far-right - meaning those not simply connected to political parties or sympathetic to far-right ideology.

The primary difference between 2023 and the end of the 1990s, according to François, is the position of the far-right political party Rassemblement National (previously Front National) and by extension public attitudes toward far-right ideology.

Between 1972 and 2011, the party was headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine Le Pen and an outspoken anti-Semite with a string of convictions for hate speech. 

"Jean-Marie accepted the radical elements, but he also had some control over them. However, when he passed the baton to Marine she embarked on a mission of making the party more palatable and mainstream," said François.

READ MORE: Explained: How far-right is France’s Marine Le Pen?

The "normalisation" of the RN has helped propel the party to electoral success, with Le Pen making it to the second round of the last two French presidential elections and the party securing over 80 parliamentary seats in June 2022, but also had the effect of alienating the more radical elements of the party.

"These elements do not recognise themselves in RN anymore," François said. "The impact: they have either joined Éric Zemmour's more extreme party "Reconquête" or they have gone off on their own".  

John Lichfield echoes this view, saying: "There is a pool out there of people [in France] who could be tempted to move into much more dangerous activity."

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Who are the 'ultra-droite' activists?

"Statistically there are reasons for the French government to be worried about far-right violence," said John, citing a Europol report from 2022 which found that almost half of all arrests across Europe for far-right would-be terrorist activity occurred in France.

"So there is a concentration of those views and a manipulation of certain issues here, which can spill over into actual violence.

"But I think you have to distinguish between the kinds of people who tried to attack Moroccan football supporters, who are kind of street protesters and wannabe changers of the system but who are not particularly organised in any serious or structured way to take part in any very dangerous terrorist activity.

"But one can spill over into the other quite quickly and France is a country in which conspiracy theories thrive and which the far right has always been very strong, since way beyond Nazism or fascism in Germany or Italy."

François said that the typical profile of the ultra-right is not of sophisticated groups - or of the type of far-right militia groups seen in the US - but is more likely to be small cells, or 'lone wolf' attackers who will launch a violent attack by themselves - usually unsophisticated in nature. 

"When compared with organised, sophisticated far-right and white supremacist militias in the United States French far-right groups are still rather clumsy.

"In France we do not have the same culture that you might find imagine of American far-right groups structures - say a militia in Montana that can equip and train themselves without any issue.

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"When compared with the United States, the France is much smaller" François said, adding that such well-trained paramilitary groups with combat experience, like the OAS of the 1960s, no longer exist in France. "That culture has been lost."

However, he did not rule out the possibility of well-organised paramilitary groups in France in the future.

"This is a big worry of mine - the current groups known to the French state are well monitored and surveilled by police and gendarmes. But the day we have combat-trained militants who communicate outside of the internet, then there could be similar paramilitary style groups formed."

The French government response

The French ministry of interior has "evolved" on the subject, according to François.

“[The government] has come to the realisation that there is a threat from the far-right,” he explained.

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In December 2022, after the Zouaves acted violently toward members of the SOS Racisme group at an Eric Zemmour rally, the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin disbanded the group for “hatred and violence" and accused it of “regularly disseminating images using symbols of Nazi ideology.”

Darmanin also disbanded the group Generation Identitaire in 2021, known for its 2012 video titled “A Declaration of War," for occupying a Mosque under construction, and for impersonating police officers in the French Alps with the hopes of intercepting migrants looking to cross from Italy into France. 

In an interview in December about the threat of far right extremism, the minister specified that nine “far right” attacks had been foiled in the last five years, and ahead of the World Cup final, he noted that more resources would be devoted to tracking such groups.

Most recently, the interior minister personally intervened to stop a torchlight march organised by the group Paris-Fierté, an offshoot of the now-dissolved Génération Identitaire, and has called for three groups to be dissolve following the violence in Romans-sur-Isère.

"There are still threats from other forms of violent extremism," François said. "But now, the government is no longer simply focusing on Islamist violence.

"The focus has widened, and there is a real recognition that threats are coming from the far-right too."

Political threat

But for some, violence from far-right groups is not the main issue.

"To me, the threat is that France's next president will be from the far-right," said Olivier Guyottot, professor and researcher in strategy and political science at INSEEC Grande Ecole of OMNES Education group.

Citing the number of MPs elected to parliament under the RN banner, Guyottot said this was something that would have been "impossible to imagine just ten years ago." 

READ MORE: OPINION: A Le Pen presidency in France would be a bigger disaster than Brexit or Trump

In a survey conducted by Le Monde and Franceinfo, 40 percent of the French public said that they viewed the Rassemblement National party as “the main opposition to Macron” - ahead of the leftist NUPES alliance (33 percent) and Les Républicains (3 percent).

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