In 2027, France’s Memorial Museum of Terrorism (MMT) is scheduled to open its doors in Suresnes, a suburb west of Paris. The project will be “unique,” according to the mission statement on the memorial’s pilot website, covering “the history and memory of terrorism over more than fifty years. Moreover, unlike other similar institutions, it does not limit itself to a single attack or single type of terrorism.” Visitors can expect a broad overview of the history of political violence by non-state actors, from Italy’s Red Brigades to a diverse array of nationalist movements and the current jihadist wave.
But the commemoration project dances around one taboo: France’s homegrown tradition of far-right violence. The last of the eight historical sequences laid out in the museum’s scientific prospectus is indeed devoted to “far-right terrorism since the 1990s,” from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to Anders Breivik’s attack in Norway in 2011 or the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Judging by the museum’s mission statement, the French experience of far-right terror — violence “motivated by xenophobia, racism, antisemitism or the hatred of Muslims” — is notably lacking. What’s mentioned in passing are artifacts from a comfortably distant past: clandestine 1930s organizations like La Cagoule or 1960s fanatics of an abandoned French Algeria.
“We’re in total denial,” says Nicolas Lebourg, a historian and political scientist at the University of Montpellier who studies the far right. “You go up to pretty much any French person and say that there were fifty attacks by explosives perpetrated by neo-Nazis in 1979, and their eyes will pop out. If you mention the late 1980s, with machine-gun wielding militants opening fire at cafés frequented by people in the North African community, and he’ll ask, What, really? But I was alive then.”
“It’s not just French society that’s in denial. There’s a denial by the state too,” Lebourg told Jacobin, pointing to the MMT. “We’re basically being told: in France, there’s no such thing as far-right terrorism.”
This illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, however. In recent years, a series of shows of force points to a revival of neofascist violence in France. According to Lebourg, we’re in the growth spurts of a “fourth wave” of far-right agitation and intimidation, as a new generation of nationalist militants looks to resuscitate the country’s storied tradition of extra-parliamentary fascist gangs and groupings.
This rise in militant activity is one of the most lurid side effects of the far right’s advance within French institutions and political culture. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement (ex-Front) National now holds eighty-eight seats in the National Assembly, a record under the Fifth Republic. The protofascist polemicist Éric Zemmour came up far short in 2022’s presidential election, but his radicalism has broken all barriers within the conservative establishment, making Le Pen look almost tame by comparison. The ostensibly centrist government in power and major media outlets frequently feed into the far right’s anxieties over a fraying national identity, or the creep of “decivilization,” as President Emmanuel Macron lamented in a cabinet meeting in late May.
“From the point of view of political representation and visibility, the far right has never been more present at the national level,” says Arié Alimi, an attorney who has provided legal counsel for the municipality of Stains in the Paris area, whose town hall was stormed by militants from the far-right group Action Française last October. “This has freed up space for all sorts of violent action.”
The far right’s increasing aggression can be seen in a broad spectrum of different activities, ranging from what might be described as “activism” — often devolving into low-level street violence — to more far-flung conspiracies, to targeted violent attacks or assassinations of political figures. The trial of the thirteen members of the so-called Barjols group, who were arrested in 2018 for concocting a far-flung plan to assassinate Macron and conduct a spate of attacks against the Muslim community, ended this February with a series of acquittals and short-term prison sentences.
This month marks ten years since the killing of eighteen-year-old anti-fascist and left-wing activist Clément Méric by skinheads. Still today, far-right violence is largely the work of youth groups like Action Française, the Groupe Union Défense (GUD), and Génération Identitaire, which was formally “dissolved,” or banned, by the interior ministry in early 2021. With fluid and often overlapping memberships, these groups have a taste for bombastic street protests and often prowl after left-wing activists and students. During periods of intense social movements, they fashion themselves vigilantes of order, like when a far-right gang assaulted a student occupation at the University of Montpellier in 2018, aided by the dean of the law school.
Left-wing party La France Insoumise has also found itself in the crosshairs, with activists and events facing harassment or outright assault from fascist groupings. In a June 2021 video titled “Is leftism bullet-proof?” far-right YouTube star Papacito staged the mock execution of a Jean-Luc Mélenchon supporter.
Taking their cues from fringe accelerationist groups in the United States, the most extreme currents dream up plans to stage attacks in the hope of provoking interracial conflict and averting the supposed “great replacement” of France’s white population. A May 31 report published in the weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné cites classified intelligence service documents claiming that 1,300 individuals associated with the far-right are on so-called S records, indicating that they are deemed a potential threat to public security.
But it’s likely that the radicalized milieu is considerably bigger. As a floor estimate, Lebourg points to the roughly 4,500 individuals who voted in the 2019 European elections for the neofascist micro party Dissidence Française, which has called for a putsch to topple the Republic. (In the early 1960s, according to Lebourg, the intelligence services estimated that were 7,600 far-right individuals susceptible to resort to violence). What’s even more difficult to track is the threat from possible lone-wolf assailants, reared in the putrid swamp of far-right internet culture. In late December 2022, a sixty-nine-year-old man shot and killed three people at a Kurdish cultural center in Paris, days after being released from prison and a year after assaulting a migrant camp in the capital, injuring two with a blade.
In and Against the Institutions
Stories like these, though shocking, have normally been treated as miscellanea. But a recent scandal has given an unusual degree of attention to the threat posed by far-right individuals and activists.
In March, unidentified agitators firebombed the private residence of Yannick Morez, the center-right mayor of the town of Saint-Brevin-les-Pins in western France. The town had been the scene of local far-right agitation in opposition to the planned construction of a center for asylum-seekers at the behest of the national government. Morez resigned from office on May 10, accusing state authorities of ignoring the warnings and death threats that he had received. Buckling under local far-right pressure, the town of Callac, in Brittany, backed off in January from accepting a similar migrant center.
“The targets have changed,” Alimi told Jacobin this winter, before the Saint-Brevin-les-Pins attack. “Far-right groups are no longer hesitant to attack institutions, like town halls or constituency offices or marches sponsored by political parties and attended by elected officials.”
Undoubtedly an expression of the broader confidence of the far-right, this increasing aggressivity is also a symptom of the reconfiguration of forces within this political sphere. While Zemmour’s Reconquête party is an electoral weakling — with only a handful of elected officials, mostly at the local level — it has sought to maintain relevance by acting as a pressure group connected with the far-right militant ecosystem.
The political scientist Bénédicte Laumond argues that the current energies among the far right reflect a “shift going on within the nonpartisan far right, with Reconquête attracting devoted militants and embedding itself in the subculture of far-right groupings.”
France’s diverse fauna of neofascist groups overwhelmingly supported Zemmour’s candidacy in last year’s presidential elections. This proximity was best expressed by the presence of the so-called Zouaves — a Paris-based fascist gang formally dissolved by the interior ministry in early 2022 — at the polemicist’s campaign launch in December 2022, when its members assaulted a group of anti-racist activists.
If there is a broad perception that Le Pen’s party has distanced itself from far-right gangs, talk of this seems overblown given her party’s deep roots within this ecosystem. At a fascist march in Paris on May 6, two of Le Pen’s close former advisers were seen marching amid the sea of Celtic flag–waving militants. For this dark underbelly of French society, the current political climate is ultimately an embarrassment of riches.
For much of his presidency, the response from Macron’s government to the agitations of the nonpartisan far right has been indifference — albeit punctuated by the occasional, symbolic gesture. When Paris-based far-right groups marched on May 6 they galivanted through parts of the city center — and were met with a miniscule police presence. Days later, Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin announced bombastically that neofascist marches would be banned, an order ultimately suspended by magistrates.
“Legally speaking, there is not a justification to outlaw far-right marches,” says Olivier Cahn, a jurist at the University of Cergy, allowing that French law does recognize ground to ban a demonstration if it’s deemed that there’s a direct threat for violence. (As Le Canard Enchaîné reports, this was revealingly cited by the Paris prefecture to deny authorization for a rally by an aid collective assisting a group of five hundred migrants squatting in an abandoned school building — the migrants had been harassed by local far-right groups, and the authorities evoked the threat of these same groups violently responding to such a rally, should it go ahead.)
The primary weapons in the state’s legal arsenal are administrative dissolutions, drawing on a law dating to the 1930s fight against fascist, anti-republican leagues. But this approach is also showing its limits. “Nobody has resorted to dissolutions as much as Emmanuel Macron has since winning office,” says Cahn.
“It’s symbolic, but not at all effective,” Cahn continues. “For the intelligence services, it also comes with its own drawbacks. It’s far easier to collect information about a structured organization than a lot of scattered individuals.”
Raphaël Arnault, a spokesperson for the anti-fascist group La Jeune Garde, argues that dissolutions have proven effective on the local level. In Lyon especially, long one of the hot spots for neofascist gangs, they have been used to shut down hangouts for the far-right militants, like “identitarian” bars and boxing facilities.
“Our position is very simple: when it comes to fighting the far right, any and all measures are necessary,” says Arnault. “But dissolving an association without following up, without tracking down the militants and knowing where they regroup isn’t enough.”
That Darmanin has been on a spree of targeting left-wing associations is part of why some claim that there’s little reason to be hesitant about calling for the state to clamp down on the far right. “Now that the interior minister has opened up the floodgates on using dissolutions, there’s no reason not to ask for them, especially if you consider the increasing frequency and intensity of far-right actions,” argues Alimi, a prominent civil liberties advocate.
If the waltz between party organizations like Reconquête and far-right gangs continues, it may also further stretch the French state’s usual policy arsenal. Reconquête is irrelevant as an electoral force. But it’s official status as a party — populated by many figures from the political establishment — means that it escapes many of the setbacks for far-right groups, namely the threat of surveillance.
The author of a new English-language comparative study on responses to the far right in France and Germany, Laumond points out that this is not the case in the German state’s response to the far right, where forces like the Alternative für Deutschland are subject to state surveillance. Zemmour’s political-party-turned-pressure force should pose a “dilemma for the French state,” says Laumond, given that it straddles mainstream visibility and the underworld of far-right groupuscules.
But if the revival of far-right activism and violence intensifies, it ultimately could prove the limits to an excessively state-heavy response. “A mature democracy cannot just count on the state — and specifically its repressive arsenal — to protect democratic institutions,” argues Laumond, pointing to the need for organizing from within society.
“We really need to take anti-fascism out of its comfort zone, where it only seems to attract extremely politicized people on the Left or the far left,” says Arnault, of La Jeune Garde. “We need to develop an anti-fascism that can appeal to a mass of the population.”
Since its founding in Lyon in 2018, La Jeune Garde has expanded to Paris, Strasbourg, Nantes, and Lille. It aims to develop closer ties with more institutionalized unions and parties on the Left. The fact that the organization has a spokesperson marks a shift, according to Arnault, who in early April testified before a National Assembly committee on the risk of far-right terrorism.
But a new strategy doesn’t mean that the fundamentals of anti-fascism are to be abandoned, and Arnault maintains that the principle of popular self-defense is a nonnegotiable when it comes to fighting back against people and ideas that pose an existential threat. This could of course cause problems for La Jeune Garde, given how far Darmanin has targeted other anti-fascist organizations with dissolution orders, like Le Bloc Lorrain or the media collective Nantes Révoltée.
“I’ve long heard people on the Left say things like, don’t defend yourself because if you do they’ll be even more violent,” Arnault told Jacobin. “How paralyzed do we have to be to buy that? No, we need to go twice as hard — and everywhere.”