Stéphanie Trouillard, France 24, February 17, 2021
French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government launched procedures to shut down the group Generation Identity on February 13 as it attempts to tackle far-right extremism.
The National Assembly approved on February 16 a bill to fight Islamist extremism and separatism in an attempt to tackle the root causes of jihadist violence – in response to a wave of attacks that has seen more than 250 people murdered since 2015.
But Macron’s centrist government is also worried about the far-right – especially seeing as a poll by magazine L’Express and daily Le Parisien in January put populist National Rally leader Marine Le Pen at 48 percent compared to 52 percent for Macron in the 2022 presidential election race.
On February 13, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced that he had triggered procedures to close down Generation Identity (Génération Identitaire) in response to a series of anti-migrant actions. The group appears to have contravened a French law banning “incitement to discriminate against a person or group because of their origin”, Darmanin said.
He had already raised the possibility of dissolving the far-right group in late January when it deployed around thirty activists on the Spanish border, with cars bearing the message “Defend Europe” and the use of drones to police the frontier – the latest in a series of stunts Generation Identity has used to attract the French public’s attention.
‘A declaration of war’
The organisation first grabbed French headlines in 2012 with an online video titled “A declaration of war”. A group of young people filmed close-up told the camera they were the generation that had seen an “ethnic divide” and a “bankrupt” experiment in “living together” that included “imposed miscegenation”.
A month later, they engaged in direct action for the first time by occupying the roof of a mosque under construction in the central French city of Poitiers, using the building the display anti-immigrant banners. Then-president François Hollande’s government considered shutting down Generation Identity in response to this, but did not do so.
A group persisted with shock tactics over the following years – including blocking the road linking the “Calais jungle” migrant camp to the city centre in 2016 and by infiltrating one of its members into the NGO SOS Méditerranée, which helps migrants in danger of death at sea, in 2018.
But Generation Identity’s biggest publicity stunt was when it launched a vast operation in the Alps along the Italian border, an open frontier thanks to the EU’s Schengen agreement – and a major crossing point for migrants. About a hundred people were involved in the operation, setting up plastic fences, unveiling a giant banner and using two helicopters to control the border. The activists were dressed in the same blue jacket, which made them look like police officers and fuelled the impression that they were usurping the role of the French state.
This operation cost around 10 percent of Generation Identity’s budget – estimated at around €300,000 and mainly composed of donations from the group’s members and supporters.
Three members were sentenced to six months in prison for the Alpine stunt in August 2019 – specifically for masquerading as police officers.
Generation Identity’s stunts were effective in capturing public attention, wrote Stéphane François, an expert on the far-right at the École Pratique des Hauts Études in Paris, on political analysis website The Conversation: “Their goal is to get people to talk about them – and they’ve done that by inviting journalists to cover their events, as well as getting publicity through their website.”
The organisation is especially good at using filming techniques as a PR tool, French weekly paper Le Journal de Dimanche observed: “At their events they film in such a way as to portray its members as more numerous than they really are. They also strategically place female members – who are in the minority – at the front of their rallies. Generation Identity are also keen to ensure that their members are relatively well-dressed for the cameras – notably in comparison to the archetypal far-right skinheads.”
The group emerged from the ashes of a previous far-right French group, the Radical Unit (Unité Radicale) – which was shut down in 2002 after one of its members tried to assassinate then-president Jacques Chirac. Unsurprisingly, this made the group toxic in French public opinion, so several of its members set up a new organisation, the Identity Bloc (Bloc Identitaire), seeking to portray itself as less extreme by ditching its predecessor’s avowed anti-Semitism.
Generation Identity was initially the youth branch of this movement – but it slowly gained independence and prominence over the past two decades.
Dissolution ‘wouldn’t solve anything’
Despite their headline-grabbing actions and the deft manipulation of their image, Generation Identity only has around 800 activists, according to Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the French far-right at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think-tank in Paris.
But the group has enjoyed some support from several members of National Rally, including the party’s spokesman Sébastien Chenu, who decried the imprisonment of Generation Identity activists in 2019. Le Pen, meanwhile, spoke out against Darmanin’s plan to shut down the group when he first raised the idea in January: “Darmanin shouldn’t be getting rid of organisations just because he doesn’t like them – the rule of law doesn’t work like that,” she said.
There is nevertheless a major difference between National Rally and Generation Identity. “National Rally’s ideology foregrounds the concept of the nation-state above all else, whereas that of Generation Identity centres around culture: local culture, then national culture, then European culture,” Camus told French magazine Inrocks.
Generation Identity reject the traditional French republican approach that treats the nation’s citizens as simply French, regardless of their origins. The group sees European ethnic identity and European cultural identity as inseparable. “Such ideas are spreading through the continent,” François wrote.
Fears that this ideology is becoming increasingly prevalent prompted several associations to call for Generation Identity’s dissolution. The Paris-based International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism has long urged for it to be shut down, branding the group a “private militia”. The association wrote on its website that it is “no coincidence that the Christchurch terrorist responsible for the 2019 New Zealand mosque massacre was on the list of Generation Identity’s donors”.
But Camus doubts that shutting down Generation Identity will work: “It wouldn’t resolve anything” and would “ignore the big problem as far-right is concerned – the rise of National Rally and that 48 percent for Marine Le Pen in the polls for the 2022 presidential elections”, he wrote in Charlie Hebdo.
“Generation Identity could also find the means to re-emerge in another guise, negating any advantages brought by shutting it down,” Camus concluded.