At the Heart of Hate: Inside France's Identitarian Movement
THE 4TH FORUM OF DISSIDENCE TOOK PLACE ON A RAINY NOVEMBER NIGHT, not far from the banks of the Seine. Inside the conference hall, French twenty-somethings with clean-cut hair styles, elegant shirts and pointed dress shoes were distributing flyers to those who arrived. Above where they stood, a navy-blue sign dis - played, in large white letters, “Defend Europe.” The flyers spelled out exactly what that meant: “No migrants in Europe! Join us to defend your people!” And then in a majestic typeface beneath a mysterious lambda sign, the flyers were signed Génération Identitaire, or “Generation Identity.”
I had first learned about Generation Identity while living in Berlin in 2017, when my German flatmates asked me if I had heard about the “Identitarians.” This group, they explained, was made up of young, mostly-male Europeans—many of them middle-class, educated and well-spoken—who held staunchly xenophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant views. Visibly stylish and with an active online presence, much of the media had started referring to them as the “hipsters of the far right.” But with now-infamous campaigns under their belt—like financing an anti-migrant ship in 2017, whose mission was to actively interfere with humanitarian NGOs operating in the Mediterranean—to call them hipsters is to treat them lightly. And the Identitarians, as they call themselves, are not playing around.
Indeed, Generation Identity is today the fastest growing far-right youth movement in Europe. Though its membership is steadily increasing in Germany, Austria, Italy, the United Kingdom and Denmark, it remains the most popular and active in the country where it was founded—France. This fall, I spent a month in Paris meeting the movement’s supporters and “militants,” as they call themselves, who meet every week at a secret location, and regularly organise online and offline campaigns to promote their anti-immigration and anti-globalisation ideology.
Inside the New Cap Event Centre, where the 4th Forum of Dissidence was being held, speakers from independent news sites gathered to share their worries about “increasing censorship” in France. Most of the speakers and journalists came from publications that have been accused of sharp bias at best, and flat out and misinformation at worst, like the Russian Sputnik, and TV Libertés, which was founded by former members of France’s far-right National Front party. One of the guest speakers, who joined the conference via live video, was columnist Eric Zemmour, known to some as “France’s right-wing prophet of doom.” The Forum had been organised by Polemia, a website owned by Jean-Yves Le Gallou, a former Member of European Parliament and a leading voice of the Nouvelle Droite, a group of French far-right thinkers founded in the late 1960s alongside the Research and Study Group for European Civilization—better known by its French acronym, GRECE. These groups, which invoked Europe’s need for a “civilisational” and “pure” identity, laid the foundations for French Identitarianism as it exists today, and the influence it has exerted internationally.
Any event in Paris that gathered France’s new alt-right around free speech would not have been complete without representatives from Generation Identity. The group’s French leader, Romain Espino—a physically short man who puts gel in his closely-cropped black hair, though it’s not the buzzcut some might expect—was there to participate on a panel about social media. He denounced social media platforms for censoring pages that do not conform to mainstream beliefs, citing the closure of Generation Identity’s Facebook page. The page had been shut down in May 2018, after a publicised campaign by GI militants, who, in April, had blocked a known crossing point in the Alps to prevent migrants from entering France. Before it was blocked by Facebook, 120.000 people followed Generation Identity on Facebook, more than three times the number of people who followed the youth pages of both the centre-left and centre-right Socialist and Republican parties.
When the panel ended, I tried to go and meet Espino, but he had rushed off instantly. It was late November and the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) movement was emerging in France. Espino was trying to figure out how Generation Identity could support it (most of its members already did) in the most impactful way. So instead, I met Adelaïde, young, blonde, and wearing bright lipstick and earrings. She was managing the Generation Identity table underneath the Defend Europe sign. Before her was arrayed a plethora of Identitarian literature, with books ranging from “The Politics of Remigration,” “Anti-Global, Pro-Local,” to “Dirty White: Chronicles of a hate that doesn’t exist,” about anti-white racism.
“We’re all sold out,” Adelaïde said, unsolicited, when she noticed me looking over at the table. “But we still have some French flags left it that interests you?” she offered. The books were gone, but the donation box in the middle of the table had filled up with cash and cheques left by enthused supporters, mostly elderly and middle-class. The money was destined to fund big-budget, attentiongrabbing campaigns like the anti-migrant boat, or patrolling the Alps with a helicopter.
Before I could respond to Adelaide, an old man who was slipping some money into the box had a sudden outburst. “We need to get rid of all these migrants! We need to stop these immigration policies!” he exclaimed, arms in the air, eyeing Adelaïde and turning to everyone around him. Adelaïde looked at me almost in embarrassment, as if their anti-immigrant views and supporters were an unspoken secret. When I asked if the conference was recorded she told me they’d put all the videos on their YouTube channel. “As long as we still have it,” she sighed.
A week later, after finding out the address of Generation Identity’s secret, local bar in Paris through a member I met at the Forum of Dissidence, I showed up at “the Identity House.”
“We call it that because it’s more than a hang-out place or a bar,” Marc Assin, the leader of the Paris section of Generation Identity, later told me. “It’s a place where we feel like family.” Situated in Paris’s 15th district, the Identity House seems like an ordinary shop from outside, yet it has no sign out front and all the shutters are closed. It nevertheless has a license to serve alcohol and food. Inside, the house feels like a family pub in the most patriotically French of ways: members can buy homemade croque-monsieurs, sandwiches, and charcuterie. All of the alcohol that’s served, like the locally brewed La Parisienne beer, is produced within roughly a 10 kilometre radius.
Despite its vast space, the walls of the “house” were mostly empty and there was little furniture, as if Generation Identity had just moved in. The bar area though, was peppered with Identitarian and regional flags, as well as photos of GI militants during past campaigns. Some of these pictures show them standing side-by-side in the Alps in their sky-blue ski coats, the uniform militants wear on Defend Europe campaigns. But one of the images that caught my attention was of Espino standing in front of the Bataclan, the concert hall in Paris’s 11th arrondissement that was attacked by terrorists on November 13, 2015. He was wearing a sleeveless, navy-blue parka vest and a classic grey Gingham shirt underneath. He looked like a good Christian schoolboy. But his jaw was clenched, his eyebrows frowning, and his camera-reddened eyes stared at the lens, full of hostility. The TV behind the bar was playing a video that gave context to this still image: it was for a campaign organised by the Identitarians last June to stop the Muslim rapper Médine from performing at the Bataclan, an example of the increasing Islamophobia that has surfaced in France in the aftermath of the terror attacks. At the end of the video, Espino emphasised each word separately: “In front of Islam, we are not backing down.”
During the two Friday evenings I spent at the Identity House there were never more than thirty people present, but always only four or five women. They stayed together and, curiously, held roles almost like hostesses of the house. They were either in the kitchen cooking or behind the bar serving drinks. One of them, Cloé Jelmoni, is the head of maintenance of the Identity House, which the Identitarians also call “La Nef,” the name of one of the first large European ships to sail the oceans in the Middle Ages. Cloé, 21, is studying Business and Commerce in Paris, and has been with the Identitarians for four years. Overseeing the management of the space is not an easy task, she explained. They have had to change locations four times already due to attacks and threats by political opponents. “But everyone knows each other here, so it’s usually safe,” she said, noting that researchers and journalists sometimes pass by in curiosity. “We don’t have security guards, but our militants are always near the door in case of an attack.”
Sporting rectangle glasses and long chestnut hair, Cloé was busy running the Identity House, from cooking croque-monsieurs in the kitchen to welcoming new followers with membership cards. Generation Identity’s membership in France has almost tripled in the past year, from 300 to 800, although Cloé underlined that members differ from “militants,” who can be depended on at any time for any purpose. There are 200 militants and counting in France, with around 50 in Paris.
Marc, the leader, told me that Identitarian militants in Paris are called “Apaches.” This is a reference both to the group of violent hooligans who used to spread terror in Paris during the Belle Époque era, but also to Native American tribes “that got exterminated and replaced on their own land,” Marc said. The role of Identitarian militants, he affirmed intently, is to ensure the same wouldn’t happen “to the French people.”
Many of the members that I met were not raised in Paris, but came from all over France. Generation Identity also has teams in Lyon, Montpellier, Lille, Nice, and other French cities. Conversations at La Nef revealed that many members weren’t exclusively affiliated with Generation Identity but also with other far-right youth movements in France, from Groupe Union Défense (GUD) to Action Française, two groups known for their nationalist and violent tendencies. Many are ex-military, a link observed in multiple Western countries with ascendant far-right movements.
One such man, Max, an ex-Marine from Toulon—home to France’s largest naval base—was unemployed and only passing through Paris to attend the Gilets Jaunes protest the following day (like everyone else present that evening). But asked about the violence and damage that the protests-turned-riots had caused, he stressed, “We’re not casseurs (hooligans), we are just fed up.”
At the end of the evening, a man stood up on the bar to make a speech. At 29 years old, he was one of the most established members present, and also one of the only ones with a shaved head. His speech was a rally for the next day, “Act III” of the Gilets Jaunes protest. He called on Identitarians to come to La Nef at 8:00 AM sharp to go to the Champs-Elysées together. When I approached him afterwards, he introduced himself as Pierre Larti; I discovered later that he used to be Generation Identity’s spokesperson, and previously led the Paris branch, before Romain Espino and Marc Assin, respectively. However, after revelations by Al-Jazeera that Larti had also been Chief of Staff for the National Front party at the Hauts-de-France regional council in Lille, he slowly lost his public status within Generation Identity to prevent the group’s association with the far-right party. Indeed, although the National Front is the party that holds the most similar views as Generation Identity, the group has maintained itself as a political youth movement that is strictly detached from any official party. Its members have no intention of being elected, nor having a career in politics. But Larti’s presence at the Identity House did not raise any questions. His experience was an example for the young militants he would lead into the Gilets Jaunes protests, which he called “a phenomenal movement of revolt by the French people.”
When the young men who regularly frequented La Nef said goodbye each week, they exchanged the “legionary” handshake, grasping each other’s forearm, rather than the hand. Recent reports on CasaPound, an Italian fascist movement intent on resurrecting Mussolini’s ideology, revealed that group members there also greet each other this way—a clear indication far-right circles across Europe share symbols and imagery.
“What we want to show is that with political will it is possible to get out of the vicious spiral of immigration. It is possible to get out of globalisation. One of the most beautiful proofs of this today, is Matteo Salvini.” A week after we met at La Nef, I joined Marc at an empty bar in the Latin Quarter—a place that he had chosen. His bartender friends lingered suspiciously near to us as we talked. Citing Salvini, he noted that despite Generation Identity’s seemingly nationalist views, the youth movement is very much pan-European and holds regular meetings between militants of different countries.
One of these meetings is the annual summer school, or Identitarian camp, held every summer at different locations in France to train future militants. It has been taking place for sixteen years, ever since Les Identitaires was founded in 2002, after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party stunned France that same year by advancing to the second round of voting in the Presidential election, even though Le Pen ultimately lost to Jacques Chirac. However, the pan-European Generation Identity movement in its current form only dates back to 2012. In its first publicised action, Identitarians climbed up and occupied the biggest mosque in Poitiers to denounce what they claimed was “the Islamisation of France.”
The summer school gathers Generation Identity members from all of its various European branches. A video of the summer camp was shown on the TV at the Identity House one evening: students range from the ages of 20 to 25. According to Marc, militants need to be young “because when you start having a family you have other things to do than climb up a building and spend your weekend in the police station.” The video showed students aligned and listening to leaders like in military school, all wearing their sky-blue uniform carrying the lambda sign—a symbol that denotes the Greek “L” and refers to the famous battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which 300 Spartans fought to the death for their land.
During the intense week of activities, the militants— around three-quarters men and one-quarter women, according to Marc—do push-ups and practice boxing every morning, and simulate street riots. “We want complete militants,” Marc explained. In addition, the students take history classes (in English), which focus on things like the “Reconquista,” the 700-year period during which Christian Spanish and Portuguese monarchs gradually expelled the Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, ending with the surrender of Granada on January 2, 1492.
In the video, many of the militants at the camp were also wearing t-shirts with a quote by ancient Greek poet Homer that said, “Du combat seuls les lâches s’écartent,” or, “From a fight, only cowards depart.” The Identitarian ideology calling for a unified European identity is indeed steeped in Ancient Greek influences, and confirms claims by experts that the alt-right is weaponizing the Classics. In my almost two-hour long conversation with Marc, he cited Greek culture more than four times, declaring at one point: “Our civilization is European. We were built by the Greeks. Europe is a political and human reality.”
That led me to ask Marc what he thought about the European Union, and whether Generation Identity, like many populist far-right groups, is deeply sceptical of it. “We are anti-membership of any political institution,” Marc replied. “We are for a European exaltation and for the power of our continent and to make it shine. The bureaucratic institution of the E.U. is totally disconnected and represents nothing.”
But although Marc maintained that Generation Identity is detached from any political institution, allegations continue to surface about the movement’s ties to far-right parties and neo-Nazi groups. Just as Pierre Larti was tied to the National Front party in France, Generation Identity’s infamous Austrian leader Martin Sellner has well-documented past links with Austrian neo-Nazi groups. Sellner now claims to have departed from a neo-Nazi ideology, saying that the Identitarians offer views more suited to the younger generation.
In Generation Identity’s British branch, now ex-militant Jacob Bewick was found to be a part of the banned, but still clandestinely-meeting neo-Nazi network National Action. Meanwhile, the current Generation Identity U.K. leader Charlie Fox is an outspoken supporter of Tommy Robinson, the founder of the highly controversial English Defence League (EDL). But as these far-right factions spreading in Europe may deny their mutual support, they continue to spread the same message that some politicians, like Salvini, have succeeded in bringing into actual government. That common message is: white-majority countries are under threat, and immigration, multiculturalism, and the globalist elite are to blame.
As we continued speaking in the empty bar in the Latin Quarter, Marc outlined the two measures that are at the heart of Generation Identity’s mission. First, closing all borders permanently (when I asked if this meant to other Europeans as well, he shrugged off the question, saying the numbers of intra-European migrants were negligible compared with the number of Africans and Asians), which they advocate through their Defend Europe campaigns. And second, beginning a process of remigration. Remigration essentially means sending the non-French (i.e., non-white, as Marc later made clear) back to their countries of origin. In a recent investigation published by Al Jazeera on Generation Identity, Mathias Destal, a journalist who has been documenting the rise of the far-right in France for the past five years, asserted that the Identitarians’ policy of remigration would resemble a form of ethnic cleansing.
Reiterating his Eurocentric ideals, Marc highlighted that living together could only be tolerated according to certain ethnic criteria. “Between Europeans, cohabitation works, but between Europeans and Asians, or Europeans and Africans, it does not work.” As the conversation continued, Marc remained articulate, but his clear racial bias intensified, with irregular sparks of agitation. When I asked if a person of colour could be French, his answer was a direct no.
“But even if they’ve lived here their whole life?” I pushed back. “For example, those living in Saint-Denis [a suburb in northern Paris with a large immigrant population], they could never be French?”
“Well, Saint-Denis has not been France for a long time,” Marc replied.
But what led Marc, a well-read 27-year-old who cited writer Stephen Smith and criticised the National Front for being “too Jacobin,” who was raised in central France and now works in I.T. in Paris, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, to hold such views? The answer is, of course, not simple.
But still, clear patterns emerged that suggested what might have aroused this level of discrimination within him. Reluctantly opening up about himself, Marc confessed that his parents were devout militants within the National Front party. “I was bathed in it,” he admitted.
When I asked Marc if he had already been acquainted with a person of colour or a Muslim, he initially laughed. “We’re in Paris,” he said. But then, he got serious again. “During my studies and work I got to know several Muslims, or guys from the Maghreb region. I don’t put my ideas on the side, but I have to stay humble. I tell myself: you know that these people are out of place here.”
He brought up a work colleague, Ahmed, who is originally from Tunisia. “I like him a lot. He’s very nice,” Marc added. “But I know that he would be much better off in his own country.” I asked what would happen if Generation Identity got its way and remigration policy was implemented—would Ahmed would have to leave? Marc paused, and then said, “Well yes, that’s how it is.”
Throughout the conversation, Marc was fixated on anti-white racism. At one point, he connected it to his childhood. “I spent part of my high school in Marseille so yes, I was a victim, whether it be me or my brothers,” he said. “It is obvious that the violence is on the other side and that our people are constantly harassed.” By using his whiteness to position himself as a victim, Marc, perhaps unwillingly was lending credence to the theory that identity politics may be stronger on the right than the left. Although identity politics and issues raised by the alt-right were thought to be ideas mostly originating from the U.S., the fact that the American white supremacist Richard Spencer has recently been open about having been influenced by French far-right thinkers, and took on the label ‘Identitarian’, might suggest that the ideologies Spencer and Marc share are closely related.
At times, in the way he avowed to fight for an ethnocultural identity to Europe, Marc’s articulate views recalled those of fascist leaders we used to learn about in school. “Multiculturalism has never existed. It’s a utopia. There are only conflicts. It’s an internal war,” he said. When Marc uttered sentences like this, there was a composure to his speech, but a violence to his words and in his light blue eyes.
Some have have suggested that many Identitarians belong to a lost generation, on the other side of the political spectrum from the May-68 leftists, yet parallel to them in their ideological disillusionment in the turn of the century. In October 2016, four months after the Brexit vote, Theresa May said in a speech, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word citizenship means.” They are words not so dissimilar from Marc’s, who lamented, “There is no longer any idea of being French. Today you are a citizen of the world, it is the ideology. You have no identity, you have no people. It is denying human beings their substance, their individuality, art, everything.”
As I left the bar, I recalled the work of Deeyah Khan, who followed a neo-Nazi group in her documentary film White Right: Meeting the Enemy. In it, Khan said, “It’s not the extremists that are the problem, it’s us.” The question remains, as it has for a long time: how do we learn to live together?
— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted