In the past few weeks, France made international news after riots erupted in the wake of the police killing of a 17-year-old French boy of Algerian descent in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. Police responded with violent force, drawing condemnation from rights groups. For consecutive evenings, thousands were arrested in Paris, and in Marseille, another young man was killed by a police flash grenade, sparking further protests.
But throughout all this, Raphaël Arnault’s eyes weren’t on the Paris suburbs. Instead, Arnault, a member of the anti-fascist group Jeune Garde and the National Observatory on the Far-Right, was watching smaller cities like Chambéry and Angers, where, in recent years, far-right groups have become increasingly organized and visible.
“A lot of these groups sprang into action,” Arnault told The Nation. “They armed themselves with iron bars, baseball bats, and tear gas canisters and went out to do the work of a militia—that’s to say, to beat up young people.”
In Angers, members of the banned ultra-Catholic extremist group Alvarium brandished weapons in the center of town. A widely shared video from Chambéry showed black-clad men marching and chanting: “French people, wake up, this is your home.” In Lorient, a city on the coast of Brittany, militia groups beat and rounded up non-white protesters before handing them over to the police.
Counter-protests by members of the far right during heated political moments were nothing new, Arnault said, but what had changed was the level of violence: “They almost systematically take out their weapons.”
These recent events are part of a disturbing trend across France: rising violence by far-right groups, often targeting racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations. One year after the far right won a record amount of seats in the French parliament, general fears of instability, combined with an increasingly organized movement and the normalization of conspiracy theories like the “great replacement” and “accelerationism,” has led to a powder keg of violence that’s ready to explode, experts say.
“What unfortunately characterizes the current period is the rise in intimidations,” said Jean-Yves Camus, head of the Observatory of Political Radicalization at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a French think tank.
No part of the country is immune. In Saint Brevin, a small city on France’s western coast, Mayor Yannick Morez’s house was lit on fire after he announced the opening of a housing center for migrants, which was protested by far-right groups. The mayor of Annecy—a city near the Swiss border where a Syrian immigrant recently attacked several children with a knife—filed a case for online harassment “probably stemming from ultra-right groups,” after opposing a march by the far right. In Bègues, a suburb of Bordeaux, a left-wing mayor’s house was tagged with Celtic crosses, a symbol often associated with white nationalist groups, and the message: “Your migrants, our deaths.” Christian Eurgal, the mayor of the 160-person town of Montjoi in the south of France, received death and rape threats and needed round-the-clock police protection after he became the target of far-right YouTuber Papacito, who accused the mayor of favoring a foreign resident over a French person in a land dispute.
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“For one unfortunate detail, the extremists show up—armed with lies—to destabilize us,” Eurgal told The Nation.
While actions linked to far-right groups are on the rise across Europe, the pattern is particularly pronounced in France. In 2021, 29 individuals linked to various far-right movements were arrested, 10 times the number in neighboring Germany, according to an Interpol study from last year. Experts say these groups have become emboldened since last year’s election, when far-right firebrand Eric Zemmour won 7 percent of the initial presidential vote and the National Rally, Marine Le Pen’s party, scored 89 seats in the National Assembly.
“There’s an acceleration of violence, an acceleration of political presence of far-right elected officials, whether that’s in regions, departments or in the National Assembly,” said Thomas Portes, who represents La France Insoumise, the left-wing party led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, in Seine Saint Denis, a suburban region north of Paris.
Portes, who is also president of France’s National Observatory on the Extreme Right, noted that between December 1, 2022, and mid-June of this year, the observatory had cataloged roughly 100 “actions” by the far right across France, including physical attacks, intimidations and other activities against elected officials, leftist groups, migrants and other vulnerable populations.
“When we look at violent actions, it’s no longer one every five days. It’s more like one every day,” he told The Nation.
France saw a similar rise in violent attacks, stemming primarily from the far right and targeting migrants, left-wing activists, and other groups, in the 1990s, Camus said. This coincided with the rise of the National Front, whose leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of France’s presidential elections in 2002. But starting in the early 2000s, this far-right party sought to soften its public image by distancing itself from fringe members such as ultra-right Catholic and neo-Nazi groups.
These same groups that were once kicked out of the National Front have reconstituted themselves since 2015, riding a global wave of populism, said Erwan Lecoeur, a sociologist at the Pacte, a social science lab at the University of Grenoble Alpes, who studies the far right.
“In many countries, these groups are under the impression that their ideas are coming to power,” Lecouer said. “They have to show that they are strong, that they have numbers, and that in general leftists, immigrants, the LGBT community, and everyone they don’t like should be scared.”
In December 2021, protesters from the anti-racist group SOS Racisme were beaten at a Zemmour rally by members of a neo-Nazi group called Les Zouaves.
Saphia Aït Ouarabi, the vice president of SOS Racisme and a student activist, said that these types of violent outbursts were also a regular occurrence during the recent pension reform protests. (The French government allowed a neo-Nazi march to proceed through Paris at the height of the pension protests.)
“This is a movement that’s anti-racist, that’s feminist,” she said. “That was intolerable for the fascist far right.”
Beyond beatings and intimidations, these groups can be deadly. More than 50 people have been killed by the far right in France since the end of World War II—four in the last 18 months alone—versus three by the far left, Lecour said. In 2022, an Argentinian rugby player was shot dead in Paris’s central Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood by a member of the Union Defense Group, a militant student activist group linked to the far right. That same year, three people were killed at a Kurdish cultural center by a retired train conductor who later told investigators that “foreigners are a menace to France” and that “they should just stay home.”
Lecoeur worried that white nationalist conspiracy theories like “accelerationism,” which posits that there is a coming race war, are increasingly finding an audience in France. On the other hand, ideas born and bred in France such as the “great replacement,” the idea that people of color are being welcomed into Europe and the United States in order to overwhelm the white population, are exported overseas, ending up on Tucker Carlson’s talk show and January 6 message boards. In France, these ideas are in turn parroted in right-wing newspapers like Valeurs Actuelles, on television channels like CNews, and by conservative political candidates including Zemmour and center-right presidential hopeful Valérie Pécresse.
When the migrant rights NGO Utopia 56 recently organized the occupation of an abandoned school in Paris’s upscale 16th arrondissement, they were met with protests by various far-right groups, including Némésis, a so-called feminist collective known for their protests against Muslims and immigrants, and Les Natifs, a spin-off of the banned far-right group Génération Identitaire. These groups—once considered fringe—were joined by Stanislas Rigault, the president of Zemmour’s youth movement, and Philippe Vardon, an elected official in Nice representing Zemmour’s Reconquête party.
After Jean-Marc Morandini, a television host at CNews, dedicated two hours of coverage to the protests and called for Utopia 56 to be dissolved, the association was targeted with death threats and doxing.
“It was an unfurling of hatred,” Nikolai Posner, head of communications at Utopia 56, told The Nation. In far-right Telegram groups, individual Utopia 56 members were named and their addresses given out, he said.
“The fear is that at some point it’s going to get more and more violent and we won’t be able to predict what’s going to happen,” Posner said. “We know that these types of actions can come from ‘lone wolves’ or from people who are radicalized by these groups and decide at one point or another to take action.”
Rim-Sarah Alouane, a PhD candidate at the University of Toulouse who studies discrimination, said that far-right groups are increasingly organized online and visible in public space. They have formed student groups, run bars, and recently organized a march in Paris that was attended by several thousand protesters.
The far right “has expanded, it has made even more connections [with transnational right-wing groups], and the worst part is it has been normalized,” Alouane said.
As Cole Stangler has written in The Nation, far-right talking points on cultural issues have also made their way into President Emmanuel Macron’s governing Renaissance party’s discourse. Fears of “wokeism,” “Islamo-leftism” and “cancel culture” are regularly invoked not only by talking heads but also by President Macron and his ministers.
“The government, through its witch hunts for feminists [and] anti-racists has in fact given a blank slate to far-right groups who felt legitimated in their ideas and simply took up the government’s own terminology” at their protests, SOS Racisme’s Ouarabi said.
In Tours, it was the fear that “gender theory”—a typical bogeyman of the French far right—is taking over French schools that led a 17-year-old to terrorize the Centre LGBTQI de Touraine over the course of several months, according to Ash Claveau, a cofounder of the association.
The attacks—broken windows, attempts to enter the building, and graffiti on the walls—escalated, culminating in the suspect throwing an explosive through the window of the institution while two employees and a volunteer were inside.
“For the moment, there are no known links to the far right,” Claveau told The Nation. “The young man was a boy scout, a good musician, athlete, and student. He has the profile of a well-adjusted young man. We don’t know at what moment he was radicalized.”
Claveau said that anti-LGBTQI hate crimes are increasingly normalized in France. In Rennes last month, far-right protesters unfurled a “Fuck LGBT” sign at a Pride rally, accompanied by a Celtic cross. SOS Homophobie, a research institution focused on hate crimes, found that LGBT-phobic attacks increased by 26 percent between 2021 and ’22.
Portes, at LFI, is now sounding the alarm about far-right violence. In November of last year, he asked the president of the French Assembly to launch a commission to study the phenomenon (the president refused to do so). In early July, he submitted another motion with the Assembly, but this time with a list of violent attacks linked to the far right—which is now three times as long.
“If there is not a radical political decision to fight against those groups, [the violence] is going to accelerate,” he said.