PARIS – Until a few years ago, the “great replacement” – a racist conspiracy theory that white Christian populations are intentionally replaced by non-white immigrants – was so toxic in France that even Marine Le Pen, the leader of long date of the country’s extreme right, ostensibly refused to use it.
But in a presidential race that has expanded the frontiers of political acceptability in France, Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the dominant center-right party in the next election, used the phrase this weekend in a speech punctuated with attacks coded against immigrants and Muslims. .
The use of the slogan – in what had been billed as the most important speech to date by Ms Pécresse, a great rival of President Emmanuel Macron – fueled intense criticism from her opponents as well as allies in the within his party. It also underscored France’s new rightward shift, particularly among middle-class voters, and the overwhelming influence of right-wing ideas and candidates in this campaign, political experts said.
The “great replacement”, a conspiracy theory embraced by many white supremacists around the world, has inspired mass killings in the United States and New Zealand.
Éric Zemmour, a far-right author, television pundit and now presidential candidate, has been the main figurehead in popularizing the concept in France over the past decade, describing it as a civilizational threat to the country. and the rest of Europe.
In a 75-minute speech to 7,000 supporters in Paris – intended to introduce Ms Pécresse, 54, the current leader of the Paris region and former national budget and then higher education minister, to voters across the country – Ms Pécresse adopted Mr. Zemmour’s themes, saying the election would determine whether France is “a united nation or a divided nation.”
She claimed France was not doomed to a “great replacement” and called on its supporters “to rise up”. In the same speech, she made the distinction between “French of heart” and “French of papers”, an expression used by the extreme right to designate naturalized citizens. Vowing not to let France be subjugated, she said of France’s symbol, “Marianne is not a veiled woman” – in reference to the Muslim veil.
“By using the ‘great replacement’, she gave him legitimacy and put far-right ideas at the heart of the debate on the presidential race,” said Philippe Corcuff, a far-right pundit who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies. Studies in Lyon. “When she speaks of ‘French on paper’, she says that we are going to make distinctions between the French according to ethnic criteria. Its stigmatization of the Muslim veil is part of the same logic of the extreme right.
The use of a term once limited to the far right by Ms Pécresse – who is the candidate for the Republicans, the party of former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac – marked a “Rubicon”, said Anne Hidalgo, the candidate presidential socialist and current mayor of Paris.
But it has also made people within his own party uncomfortable, who still want to draw clear lines between him and the far right. Xavier Bertrand, a heavyweight in the party, said: “The great replacement is not us”, according to French media.
Polls show Ms. Pécresse, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Zemmour neck and neck for second place behind Mr. Macron in the first round of voting, scheduled for April 10. One of them would face Mr Macron, who has also swung to the right, especially in the last two years of his presidency, in the second round on April 24.
Mr Zemmour’s sudden rise as a candidate has injected the “great replacement” and other explosive stakes into the race, forcing other right-wing candidates to hone their positions or risk losing his support.
Ms Le Pen had expressly rejected the slogan, criticizing it as a conspiracy theory. While she has kept her distance from the term, her party’s chairman, Jordan Bardella, has started referring to it in recent months.
In the face of criticism, Ms Pécresse backed down a little, believing that her use of the expression had been misinterpreted.
But Nicolas Lebourg, a right-wing and far-right political scientist, said his use of the term simply reflected political calculation: traditional middle-class centre-right supporters have also moved to the right in recent years.
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“Since 2010, there has been a significant hardening of upper-middle-class voters against immigration and Islam, but we had yet to see its political effects,” Lebourg said. “So what we are currently experiencing is a shift in part of the middle class and the upper middle class.”
These voters worry about issues like “Wokism” – the supposed contamination of France by “woke” American ideas about social justice that they see as overblown political correctness.
“It’s middle-class voters who care about ‘Wokism’, while working-class supporters of Le Pen are completely uninterested in it,” Lebourg said.
The “great replacement” was hinted at by a French writer named Renaud Camus in 2010. In a 2019 interview, Mr Camus lamented that prominent politicians had rejected the slogan. The slogan and his adherence to the extreme right had turned him into a pariah in French literary and media circles, forcing him to publish his own books.
But in recent months, Mr. Camus has been invited back to television talk shows.
In an email exchange on Tuesday, he said, “I can only welcome the use of the term ‘great replacement’ during this presidential campaign.”
Other campaign issues, like the pandemic and consumer purchasing power, were minor compared to the reality depicted by the slogan, he said.
“The rest doesn’t matter in comparison,” he said.