Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, February 15, 2022
Until a couple of years ago, the “great replacement” — a racist conspiracy theory that white Christian populations are being intentionally replaced by nonwhite immigrants — was so toxic in France that even Marine Le Pen, the longtime leader of the country’s far right, pointedly refused to use it.
But in a presidential race that has widened the boundaries of political acceptability in France, Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the mainstream center-right party in the coming election, used the phrase over the weekend in a speech punctuated with coded attacks against immigrants and Muslims.
The use of the slogan — in what had been billed as the most important speech so far by Ms. Pécresse, a top rival of President Emmanuel Macron — has fueled intense criticism from both her opponents as well as allies within her party. It also underscored France’s further shift to the right, especially among middle-class voters, and the overwhelming influence of right-wing ideas and candidates in this campaign, political experts said.
Éric Zemmour, a far-right author, television pundit and now presidential candidate, was the leading figure to popularize the concept in France in the past decade — describing it as a civilizational threat against the country and the rest of Europe.
In a 75-minute speech before 7,000 supporters in Paris — intended to introduce Ms. Pécresse, 54, the current leader of the Paris region and a former national minister of the budget and then higher education, to voters nationwide — Ms. Pécresse adopted Mr. Zemmour’s themes, saying the election would determine whether France is a “a united nation or a divided nation.”
She said that France was not doomed to the “great replacement” and called on her supporters “to rise up.” In the same speech, she drew a distinction between “French of the heart” and “French of papers” — an expression used by the extreme right to point to naturalized citizens. Vowing not to let France be subjugated, she said of the symbol of France, “Marianne is not a veiled woman” — referring to the Muslim veil.
“By using the ‘great replacement,’ she gave it legitimacy and put the ideas of the extreme right at the heart of the debate of the presidential race,” said Philippe Corcuff, an expert on the far right who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon. “When she talks of ‘French of papers,’ she’s saying that distinctions will be made between French people according to ethnic criteria. Her stigmatization of the Muslim veil is in the same logic of the extreme right.”
But it also made uneasy people inside her own party, who still want to draw clear lines between it and the extreme right. Xavier Bertrand, a party heavyweight, said, “The great replacement, that’s not us,” according to French news media.