The “Great Replacement” Narrative in the 2022 French Presidential Elections

Once a fringe far-right conspiracy theory that was too toxic for even Marine Le Pen, the “Great Replacement” narrative has emerged as a prominent issue in the 2022 French presidential election. The “Great Replacement” is a conspiracy theory belief alleging the secret, intentional replacement of the French population by French and European elites with the aim of destroying French civilization. Whereas Marine Le Pen’s attempts at “de-demonization” have traditionally led her to generally avoid referencing the belief, significant competition from Éric Zemmour on the radical flank and Valerie Pécresse of Les Républicans has led the candidates of the right to reference the belief as a demonstration of authenticity. The result has been an increasing mainstreaming of the conspiracy theory belief, which is likely to promote further intolerant and violent behavior towards France’s largest minority group.

by Patrick Swayer, lecturer and doctoral candidate at the National Research University Higher School of Economics

From its origins as a fringe conspiracy theory on the far right, belief in the “Great Replacement” has become increasingly mainstream in contemporary French society. The belief that French and European elites have concocted secret plans to “replace” the native French population with foreign peoples and cultures is not a new one; in 1973, Jean Raspail released the Camp des Saints (Camp of the Saints), a rabidly racist novel which depicts an invasion of the European continent by stereotypically-characterized immigrants from the third-world with the help of traitorous Europeans who betray their country in the name of multiculturalism, which proved popular in French far right circles. In the early 2000s, a variant of the “replacement” narrative emerged under the portmanteau “Eurabia,” which argued that French and Arab authorities were secretly perpetuating migration of Muslim population to Europe in order to Islamize the continent and undermine strategic alliances with the United States and Israel. The current rendition of the replacement narrative became popularized by Renaud Camus’ book Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement) in 2011. His rendition alleges that the “genocidal bloc” of French and European elites secretly, and intentionally, perpetuate a “replacement” of the native population (français de souche) by a population with values and cultures that contradict that of France. While previous iterations of the “replacement” largely remained confined to the ideological fringes of French society, today the conspiracy theory has become increasingly mainstreamed, as evidenced by the frequent references to it by the political right, and found a home among a large section of the French electorate.

Supporters of the Front National (now Rassemblement National (National Rally)) were the original supporters of the conspiracy theory and helped to give it oxygen in its early stages. Since being elected president of the party in 2011, however, Marine le Pen has attempted to seek out electoral success through a strategy of “de-demonization,” consisting of jettisoning the more radical elements of the party in favor of a language that appears more liberal and secular on its face, in addition to the expulsion of extremist elements of the party membership (Dézé, 2012, 141–4; Alduy and Wahnich, 2015). Consequently, Marine le Pen has chosen to “flirt” with the extremist conspiracy theory since 2011, which allows her the ability to use it as a dog whistle while retaining plausible deniability when confronted by journalists (Jeudy, and Prissette, 2014, 2 Nov; Maad, 2019, 19 March). Instead, open reference to the “Great Replacement” has been left to the radical flanks such as her niece, Marion Maréchal le Pen.

A newcomer to the political scene, the writer and TV polemist Éric Zemmour has taken up the cause of the “Great Replacement” as one of his primary campaign issues. One of Frances “new reactionaries,” Zemmour once stated to France 2 TV: “If I’m a candidate in the presidential election, it is firstly and above all to stop the ‘great replacement’ and to fight immigration” (Ganley, 2022, 17 Feb). The controversial media commentator has long been known for his provocative comments that stir up scandals for the news media to cover and has not hesitated to stake out positions on the “Islamization of France”, “the feminization of society” or revisionist accounts of Vichy France (Zemmour, 2014). Instead of mainstreaming the conspiracy theory belief by moderating its contents, Zemmour has chosen instead to loudly pronounce his support for the belief, take on presidential contenders who he views as not doing enough to stop it, and attempt to move the Overton window far to the right. This has helped him gain the support of other prominent far-right “Great Replacement” believers from the Identitarian wing of the Rassemblement National such as ex vice-President Nicolas Bay, and Marion Maréchal Le Pen (Darmanin, 2022, 3 March), as well as sap support from Marine Le Pen, who at one point in time boasted nearly 25 to 30 percent support from the French electorate. Polling shows that a large number of voters who believe in the “Great Replacement” have flocked to support Zemmour’s candidacy (Cnews, 2022, 17 February).

The increasing competition from both the far-right and Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) has even led the right-wing candidate for Les Républicans Valerie Pécresse to briefly signal her support for the conspiracy theory during her rally at the “grand meeting” at the Zénith in Paris, in an effort to opportunistically win over supporters from the two populist radical right contenders:

…in ten years time … will we be a sovereign nation, a U.S. satellite or a Chinese trading post? Will we be unified or divided? … Nothing is written, whether it’s loss of economic status, or the Great Replacement” (Caulcutt, 2022, February 14).”

This strategy of co-option could be beneficial in pulling supporters from the far-right, assuming the candidate is viewed as being authentic enough, but also serves to mainstream the issue by providing it with credibility. The problem with Pécresse’s attempt to signal her support for the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory is that she both gave the belief mainstream credibility, and failed to present herself as an authentic advocate of it. This scandal, as well as her performance at the Zénith, have led to her polling numbers collapsing, allowing Le Pen and Zemmour to regain in the polls, and divisions within the party to appear. At this point, it would appear, to take the words of Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo, that Pécresse has certainly “crossed the Rubicon,” however, it seems ever more unlikely that she will end up conquering Rome.

Today, the conspiracy theory remains a lasting fixture of French politics. Whereas a 2019 IFOP survey noted that an estimated 25% of French voters “agreed” with the replacement narrative (IFOP, 2019 January), in early 2022, this number jumped to an estimated 48% of all French voters (Cnews, 2022, 17 February), with other surveys estimating belief as high as 61% (Harris-International, 2021, 20 October). It is unclear whether the arrival of Zemmour on the radical flank, and Pécresse inhabiting the traditional conservative space closer to the center, have either increased support for the belief during the time of the election, or simply reacted to the issues deemed important by their sympathizers. However, polling finds that large numbers of voters for both the Rassemblement National and Les Républicans support the conspiracy theory (Harris-International, 2021, 20 October). Aside from the strong coincidence with right-wing ideologies, it is important to note that there is no significant association between belief in the conspiracy theory and gender, generational cohort, or economic status, which implies that the mainstreaming of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory is a general phenomenon that cannot easily be located amongst certain societal cohorts (Harris-International, 2021, 20 October). This is also indicative of the right-ward shift of France’s middle classes who have traditionally been more aligned with the center-right Républicans. The danger in the continued mainstreaming of the conspiracy theory are apparent; while not all conspiracy theory beliefs (such as the “flat earth”) are necessarily detrimental to the state of democracy, those that allege an evil plot concocted by one’s political opponents can lead to increased polarization and political violence (Sawyer, 2021). Given that perceptions of immigration and Islam are already at record low levels in France (CEVIPOF, 2022, January), the further demonization of minorities is likely to have a radicalizing effect on the public that promotes intolerant, and possibly violent reactions.

Patrick Sawyer is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, and researcher in the International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID). He is also an invited researcher at the Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po (CEVIPOF) in Paris, France. His research interests include populism, radicalism, conspiracism, and political protests.


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OPUS - Young Scholars Initiative on Populism

OPUS - Young Scholars Initiative on Populism

OPUS is a platform inaugurated by Team Populism for young and emerging scholars on populism.