France Has Finally Launched Efforts to Disband a Violent Hate Group. Experts Say It’s Too Late.
After a decade of violent anti-minority acts, France’s “Generation Identity” finally faces state-ordered dissolution—but experts say it’s too late to curb the group's impact.
PARIS—In the spring of 2018, about 100 activists—supported by two helicopters, a small plane, quad bikes and trucks—unfurled a large banner along France’s Alpine border with Italy that read, “No way! Back to your homeland!”
Generation Identity, an anti-immigrant activist movement known for its publicity stunts, was behind the actions. Dressed in matching blue jackets to resemble police officers, the group was trying to draw attention to the mountainous crossing point for refugees—an open border under the EU’s Schengen agreement—and its alleged lack of a police presence. The stunt was later saluted by Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Rally (RN) party, as a “great communications operation.”
Nearly three years later, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has announced efforts to close down the so-called “groupuscule,” stating it contravened a law banning “incitement to discriminate against a person or group because of their origin.” Generation Identity was given 10 days to respond to a seven-page letter detailing the reasons for the decision. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told The Daily Beast on Thursday that a response has been received, and that the government will make a decision within the “next few days” with a dissolution “very likely.”
Estimated to have between 800 and 1,000 members, the group is known for its carefully honed image of youthful innocence. But according to Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the French far right at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think tank in Paris, it is a “major” operation with branches in Paris, Nice, Lyon, Rouen, Aix-en-Provence, and Montpellier. Focused on promoting the ridiculous conspiracy theory of the “great replacement,” it claims a “globalized elite” plans to replace white European populations with Muslim immigrants.
While most agree that the dissolution of Generation Identity is to be welcomed, many experts on the far right question why the government has only now decided to close down an overtly xenophobic association that has existed for almost a decade. “Of course it’s political,” Camus tells The Daily Beast. “The government is doing it now because it wants to be seen to be acting fairly as it cracks down on extremist Islamists [with an anti-separatism law]. It’s also with an eye on the presidential elections next year.”
Others see more complicated political maneuvers afoot. Aurélien Mondon, associate professor at the University of Bath and an expert on the mainstreaming of the extreme right and right-wing populist discourse, points to a televised debate on Feb. 11 during which Darmanin goaded Le Pen for being too “soft” on radical Islam. “In a way, the dissolution feels a bit like a decoy,” says Mondon. “It’s happening just after the debate. It’s sending confusing signals and it’s playing into the hands of Le Pen. Instead of addressing the lack of trust in politics, and disillusionment with politics, the government has propped up the far right.”
Regardless of the political motives behind the ban, consensus is that France’s far-right discourse has, so far, been allowed to thrive. Generation Identity—originally the youth branch of Bloc Identity, a far-right French nationalist group founded in 2003—launched nine years ago with the occupation of a mosque, where militants chanted Islamophobic slogans. Over the years, it has continued to deploy shock tactics, including blocking roads to the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp in 2016, and attacking the offices of SOS Méditerranée, an NGO that helps refugees in distress at sea, in 2018.
Unlike many parallel far-right groups that espouse nationalism, Generation Identity promotes pan-European ethnic identity and culture, which experts say has fueled the movement’s popularity across Europe, including in Germany and Austria. Fears that the group’s racist ideology is becoming increasingly widespread—especially as race-driven hate crimes continue to rise during the pandemic—has prompted several French NGOs to call for action to be taken against Generation Identity.
“I think the government’s recognition of the problem is a good thing,” says Nicolas Nef Naf, a lawyer for French nonprofit SOS Racisme. “But it could have acted more quickly. We’ve been writing to ministers for years demanding action.”
On Saturday, hundreds of Generation Identity militants gathered in central Paris to protest the dissolution, taking the opportunity to paint themselves as an oppressed minority by waving banners of figures such as French martyr Joan of Arc. “You are the censored, slandered, gagged generation,” Jean-David Cattin, a figurehead of the movement, proclaimed without a hint of irony. Florian Philippot, president of the far-right Patriots party, also lent his support to the crowd, telling them the dissolution “has no legal basis” and that “the only dissolution that we would like today is that of the National Assembly” or of “all these radical mosques.”
The group later published a minute-long video urging “all the young French and Europeans” to join Generation Identity and thanking “everyone who took action” by participating in the protest.
Theatrics aside, there are concerns that the proposed legal efforts are unlikely to stop the activists, who could integrate into several different groups under new names. Stéphane Nivet of the Paris-based International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) says Generation Identity was itself created by former members of Radical Unity, an association that was shut after one of its activists attempted to assassinate President Jacques Chirac on the Champs-Elysées in 2002.
“Generation Identity didn’t appear spontaneously,” he says. “It was born out of Radical Unity. There’s the possibility that if the government shuts it down through legal processes, the movement will relaunch in a different form.”
The legal logistics of dissolution could also prove difficult, according to Nef Naf, who voices similar concerns about the long-term impact of the intended dissolution. “I think the government is armed with lots of proof of xenophobic and racist behavior,” he adds. “But an appeal is possible. And we need to be vigilant that they aren’t reformed so that they don’t create smaller associations. We must avoid a reappearance of it.”
For Mondon, while Generation Identity itself remains a fringe group with links to some of the country’s most radical neo-fascists, its impact on mainstream discourse through established political parties is already evident. National Rally spokesman Sébastien Chenu protested the imprisonment of Generation Identity activists in 2019. Then Darmanin himself took up the words of Le Pen last July when speaking of the “savageness” of society.
Despite the government’s current legal efforts, the dangerous discourse channeled by Generation Identity seems unlikely to disappear from French politics any time soon. “It’s all well and good to beat them in the elections, but this approach means you bring their ideas into the mainstream,” says Mondon. “Ideologically, there are parts of the French government that have used their arguments. It’s the presentable face of liberal racism.”