PARIS — In late August, a court in the southeastern city of Gap sentenced three members of the far-right anti-migrant group Génération Identitaire, or “Generation Identity,” to six months in prison, along with a hefty fine of 75,000 euros ($83,000). They were charged with “exercising activities in conditions that could create confusion with a public function” during “Defend Europe,” the group’s weeklong mobilization in April 2018, in which its members attempted to block the French-Italian border from migrants entering through the Alps. The operation was well-coordinated and robust, with helicopters and matching uniforms; prosecutors determined that it could have been “mistaken for a police maneuver.”
Some six months after the action, the fallout in the region was still palpable. I spent a week there last November, interviewing asylum-seekers and members of the slew of organizations that have emerged since 2015 to support them. I attended a trial in Gap, too—not of the far-right “identitarians,” as they call themselves, but of the so-called Briançon 7, a group of seven migrants’ rights advocates who were accused of facilitating the illegal crossing of some 20 migrants in the midst of Defend Europe. They had organized a counter-protest, they said, in direct response to Génération Identitaire; if there were undocumented migrants involved, as the police alleged, it wasn’t their fault. Five were ultimately handed suspended sentences; two were given jail time.
While on the road in eastern France, I met Romain Espino, Génération Identitaire’s 26-year-old spokesman and one of its members who will now serve prison time. He’s boyish but clean-cut, with a crisp button-up shirt and hair that looked freshly coiffed. We had coffee in Lyon’s Renaissance neighborhood, part of the old town overlooking the Saône River. It’s a picturesque area, cobblestone streets and tourist shops, that has also become a meeting ground for far-right groups.
Espino, who believes the scourge of immigration has ravaged French society, is the grandson of Spanish immigrants who lived in Morocco before settling in France. (Curiously, many of the French far right’s youngest activists are descendants of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants.) But his background doesn’t make him question his views—he believes it only strengthens his argument: The issue isn’t about immigrants, but identity, not about migration from elsewhere in Europe, but the arrival of “non-Europeans,” he said.
At the time, I saw his answers during our hour-long interview as par-for-the-course extremist discourse. Looking back, I’m struck by how much of what he expressed so deeply permeates public debate not just in France, but also across Europe and in the United States.
Echoing the rhetoric of white nationalist groups across the world, Espino believes that “white identity” is under siege. “Our goal is to defend who we are, our traditions, our future.” Europe, he said, is being “submerged” with migrants. “Just look at the banlieues,” the often low-income suburbs of major cities, “now full of non-European populations, who cause trouble at every chance they get.” He contrasts his own family’s story—a successful tale of assimilation, he believes—with that of “North Africans who refuse to integrate.” Like nearly every right-wing or far-right figure I’ve encountered, he interprets French-Algerians’ celebration of Algeria’s soccer victories as proof that they reject France. All that, he said, is why he’d organized Defend Europe. At the time, he told me he wasn’t afraid of facing any legal consequences—and if he did, down the line, it would have all been worth it.
Espino grew up in the Lyon banlieues, where he says he had constant run-ins with “racailles,” a derogatory term often used to describe North Africans. “It’s a Muslim territory. Women aren’t welcome. Whites aren’t welcome.” Immigrants, he said—recent arrivals or the second and third generations—“are people who defend only their identity, and want to impose it onto others.” When French-Algerians drape themselves in the Algerian flag, it’s part of their “profound hatred for France and for Europeans.” It’s rare to see “immigrants who don’t hate this country,” he insisted. Perhaps there are only “occasional exceptions.”
As he railed against “people who defend only their identity,” Espino expressed outrage at criticism of his own identity politics. Some of his childhood friends “can’t accept that I’m proud of my origins,” he said, “but I’m so proud to be French.” He envies the United States, where “patriotism is very noble, but here, it makes you get the label of far-right, fascist, nationalist, and it’s shocking.” He does not see his divergent positions—on Algerian identity, on one hand, and on his own, on the other—as contradictory.
When I asked Espino how he felt about the fact that many call Génération Identitaire a neo-Nazi organization, he scoffed, saying, “the past doesn’t interest us.” Besides, he added, the group disavows violence: “We do politics. It’s cultural. It’s not in the DNA of the European to resort to violence. The European is someone who reflects deeply, who likes big ideas.” He contrasted that to “another population that is much more primitive and far more violent.”
Espino’s anxiety about the state of white identity is hardly unique. It’s the same fear that inspired Donald Trump to all but close off the United States to migrants, but hope that the country can still attract Norwegians; it’s helped the far-right National Rally in France go from a pariah to a political force whose rise can’t be ignored. What’s striking is how normal all of it’s become, and how none of what Espino told me seemed particularly shocking. I left the interview disinclined, on one hand, to give unnecessary visibility to the views of this relatively insignificant person, but on the other, compelled to make sure his ideology would never appear acceptable or anodyne.
That dilemma has been a conundrum for journalists over the past five years. In 2018 especially, a slew of articles framed young identitarians like Espino as “hipsters,” marveling at how they wore skinny jeans and liked art galleries and craft beer—and also happened to want to deport all immigrants, as if that was some sort of ideological footnote to their trendy haircuts. But when I met Espino, the fact that we were around the same age or maybe liked the same indie bands didn’t make anything he said any less racist. Still, in retrospect I can tell how dulled my senses have become to ideas I know I find abhorrent.
That’s partly because so much of Espino’s rhetoric is now scattered throughout everyday politics. Indeed, that’s why he was so proud of Defend Europe: Génération Identitaire’s actions, as he saw it, had reached the highest levels of government. “The border police came to thank us,” he boasted at the time. “They’d been underfunded since 2015, and nobody listened to their requests for more support, but our show of force put pressure, and the government saw it was time to act.”
Espino likely overestimated Defend Europe’s influence on border policy; the police consistently denied any collaboration with the group, and when I contacted the region’s prefecture, officials chalked it up to a communications ploy. But it’s impossible to ignore the hardening of attitudes toward immigration across Europe and the way Espino’s hateful ideology has become so ingrained in the political conversation.
Language and policy can’t be divorced, and two recent moves, on the French and European level, indicate that the us-versus-them mentality that drives far-right activism isn’t as fringe as it seems.
As President Emmanuel Macron gears up for the second half of his term, he’s already eying the next presidential election in 2022. More than two years out, it seems likely that it will be a repeat of 2017, the young centrist against Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party. And as France now wakes up from its summer hiatus, Macron has outlined his priorities for the rentrée: notably, a pledge to focus on immigration, with the goal to “take the lead, to anticipate a global shift in terms of migration and avoid a radicalization of public opinion,” as one of his aides told the newspaper Les Echos. That will involve, in part, making cuts to the medical services migrants unconditionally receive—a proposal taken directly from the National Rally’s playbook. It’s yet another example of Europe’s centrists hardening their line on immigration in order to hedge against the far right. Macron’s rightward lurch has divided his party; many on the left have drawn comparisons to the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president notorious for his demonization of immigrants and focus on “national identity.”
But it’s not necessarily an effective strategy. As the sociologist Eric Fassin wrote on Twitter, “to say that he’s doing it to ‘avoid a radicalization of public opinion,’” is like “doing Le Pen to protect us from Le Pen. Even though she’s demonstrated for ages that voters prefer the original to a copy.”
Against that backdrop, France has been deporting migrants to Afghanistan in record numbers, in violation of non-refoulement, the international legal principle that forbids deporting asylum-seekers to countries where they could face persecution. A bilateral agreement with Afghanistan is on the table that would facilitate more deportations.
On the European level, too—where far-right populists solidified their presence in last May’s parliamentary elections—xenophobic language seems to be increasingly institutionalized. Earlier this week, the European Commission’s incoming president, Ursula von der Leyen, came under fire for giving the EU’s most senior migration official the controversial title of “vice president for Protecting our European Way of Life.”
Von der Leyen, who takes office on Nov. 1, is hardly an anti-immigrant voice; she served in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and defended her commitment to welcoming migrants and asylum-seekers even when that policy proved politically costly. Still, the civilizational undertones of “Protecting our European Way of Life” undeniably echo the “Great Replacement Theory”—the conspiratorial belief that Europe’s white majority is being replaced by African immigrants, coined by the French essayist Renaud Camus. It’s what inspired the terrorist who killed 51 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, as well as the mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart last month, and at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October, among other recent hate crimes.
The European Commission pushed back against criticism. “The European way of life,” von der Leyen’s mission letter stated, “is built around solidarity, peace of mind and security” as well as “the principle of dignity and equality for all.”
But words matter. Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said: “The essence of the ‘European way of life’ is precisely the freedom to let individuals choose their own life,” and “the idea that Europeans need to be protected from external cultures is monstrous. This type of language must be rejected.” Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president, was equally critical: “I don’t like the idea that the European way of life is opposed to migration. Accepting those that come from far away is part of the European way of life,” he said.
Perhaps like Macron, von der Leyen believes that tightening migration policy and rhetoric will stave off nationalist rivals. Even as criticism to the new title mounts, her office has defended the move. Her apparent willingness to integrate far-right language into EU immigration policy cedes ground to the dangerous notion that migration in itself threatens the “European way of life.”
Increasingly, the debate about borders or social policy has focused on identity, drawing a straight line between the very structure of European leadership and the xenophobic tirades of ideologues like Romain Espino. “We want a politics rooted in identity, in which leaders will be judged on how they defend their people, and their people’s identity,” he told me in November. Europe, he said, “is our civilization. It’s what we need to protect and defend—our own, against them.”
Lead image credit: In April 2018, Génération Identitaire attempted to block the French-Italian border from migrants in an operation they dubbed Defend Europe. Photo Credit: Génération Identitaire website