The Inspiration for Terrorism in New Zealand Came From France

The gunman who massacred Muslims was inspired by ideas that have circulated for decades on the French far-right.

Mourners gather outside the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia after a 28-year-old Australian-born man, Brenton Tarrant, appeared in Christchurch District Court on Saturday charged with murder for killing 49 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history.
Mourners gather outside the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia after a 28-year-old Australian-born man, Brenton Tarrant, appeared in Christchurch District Court on Saturday charged with murder for killing 49 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history. (Jaimi Chisholm/Getty Images)

When white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 chanting “they will not replace us” and “the Jews will not replace us,” few of the assembled extremists knew where those slogans came from. By contrast, Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian accused of shooting dead 49 worshipers at two mosques and wounding dozens more in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, was more explicit when it came to his intellectual inspirations. In the 74-page manifesto he posted before the rampage, he praises the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and draws on his work while noting his admiration for the interwar British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. But French ideas figure most prominently in Tarrant’s thinking.

He cites watching “invaders” at a shopping mall during a visit to an eastern French town as the moment of epiphany when he realized he would resort to violence. His manifesto appears to draw on the work of the French anti-immigration writer Renaud Camus, including plagiarizing the title of his book Le grand remplacement (“The Great Replacement”)—a phrase that has become commonplace in European immigration debates and a favorite of far-right politicians across Europe, including the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and a group of younger far-right activists who call themselves “identitarians.” Tarrant writes of initially dismissing stories of an invasion of France by nonwhites that he had encountered while still at home, but, once in France, he adds: “I found my emotions swinging between fuming rage and suffocating despair at the indignity of the invasion of France, the pessimism of the french [sic] people, the loss of culture and identity and the farce of the political solutions offered.”

Although Tarrant seems eager to give Camus credit, the French writer pushed back against those insisting that he acknowledge that his ideas may have inspired carnage. Facing a barrage of criticism on Twitter, Camus himself responded by denouncing the attack. “I find it criminal, idiotic, and awful,” he wrote, while accusing the perpetrator of “abusive use of a phrase that is not his and that he plainly does not understand.”

But the accused killer’s manifesto echoes Camus’s writing in many ways—most notably in the fear of demographic erasure by which a new population replaces an existing one, a process Camus insists is akin to colonialism. In his essay “Pegida, mon amour,” Camus praises the overtly anti-Islam German group Pegida as a “great hope rising in the East” and a “liberation front” that is fighting the “anti-colonialist struggle.” For him, there is no hope of living together in Europe when “there is a colonial conquest in progress, in which we are the colonized indigenous people” and the weapons of sheer numbers and demographic substitution are used to subjugate the natives.

Tarrant eerily echoes these ideas. “Millions of people [are] pouring across our borders … [i]nvited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labour, new consumers and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive,” he argues in his manifesto. “This crisis of mass immigration and sub-replacement fertility is an assault on the European people that, if not combated, will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.”

The accused killer claims his goal was to “show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands.” He chose the mosques because the worshipers were a “large group of invaders, from a culture with higher fertility rates, higher social trust and strong, robust traditions that seek to occupy my peoples lands and ethnically replace my own people.”

As the world recoiled in horror from the carnage carried out in yet another house of worship, Camus spent much of the day distancing himself from the terror and defending his innocence. To be sure, he has never advocated murder. In an interview with one of us published in Vox in 2017, Camus elaborated on his theories, which are often cryptic in his writings. “Of course, if you change populations, you can’t expect the same civilization to hold on,” he said at the time. “The refusal to be replaced is a very strong feeling in man. … The will not to be replaced was at the center of resistance to colonialism. … People don’t want other people to come in their territory, in their country, and change their cultures and their religions, their way of living, their way of eating, their way of dressing.”

He also took great pains to distinguish between Nazism, which he deplores, and the ideas undergirding white nationalism for which he appeared to have greater sympathy. “I think races do exist and that they are infinitely precious. … I pray for the conservation of all races, beginning with those which are the most under menace.” When asked which race was most threatened, he replied: “Well, probably the white one, which is by far the least numerous of the old major classical ‘races.’” France, too, he insisted, “is fast losing its own territory, where its own culture and civilization is quickly becoming just one among others, and not the most dynamic, and which is rapidly being colonized.” While vigorously rejecting the use of violence in Charlottesville, Camus maintained: “I totally sympathize with the slogan: ‘We will not be replaced.’ And I think Americans have every good reason to be worried about their country.”

Demographic anxiety about declining white populations and rapidly increasing immigrant ones—especially those consisting of Muslims—is central to nativist parties’ programs across the globe. In the 20th century, this fear can be traced to the apocalyptic visions of Enoch Powell, the anti-immigrant English politician, who in the 1960s famously envisioned rivers of blood in Britain brought on by immigration, and the French author Jean Raspail—the two men whom Camus cites as “prophets” in an epigraph to Le grand remplacement.

Jean-Yves Camus (no relation to Renaud), a French scholar of the far-right, sees Tarrant’s ideas as more firmly rooted in Raspail’s thinking than in great replacement theory. “The shooter is much more extreme than Renaud Camus,” he said in an email exchange Friday. “Camus coined the term ‘grand remplacement’ to show his belief that the native European population is being uprooted by the non-Caucasian immigrants, especially the Muslims. Renaud Camus never condoned violence, much less terrorism.” He added: “Raspail is another thing.”

Raspail’s dystopian 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, has become a beacon for far-right figures from French politician Marine Le Pen to U.S. President Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon and white supremacist Iowa Rep. Steve King. In 2015, during the Syrian refugee crisis, Le Pen, who has known Raspail since she was a toddler, urged her millions of social media followers to read his novel in order to stop France from being “submerged.”

Raspail foresaw a Europe in which the arrival of refugees “would empty out all our hospital beds so that cholera-ridden and leprous wretches could sprawl between their clean white sheets. Another would cram our brightest, cheeriest nurseries full of monster children.” He was particularly afraid of miscegenation: “Another would preach unlimited sex, in the name of the one, single race of the future.”

At the time, he was full of praise for the “white” nations of the South Pacific, lauding them and their historically strict and racially-based immigration policies as “champions of the Western World stuck away in the far-flung hinterlands of Asia.” Recent Australian governments have enthusiastically endorsed similar toughness. In October 2015, recently ousted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott denounced Europe’s “misguided altruism” and warned that rescuing capsizing migrants at sea was “a facilitator rather than a deterrent” for mass immigration and that while a cold-hearted policy might “gnaw at our consciences … it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever”—a warning that cultural replacement might await.

Nearly five decades after he wrote the novel, Raspail has not changed his views. In an interview at his Paris apartment in 2016, he told one of us that he saw a movement taking shape, much like the small band of men who face down the refugees at the end of his novel, gathering in an old stone house to keep a tally of the body count as they shoot down the “invaders.”

“We’re fed up. We’ve seen enough. … There is going to be a resistance movement, and it has begun,” Raspail said from behind a desk surrounded by memorabilia from his travels. “If the situation becomes the one I predict—catastrophic—there will certainly be resistance that is both tough and armed,” he added. “People will want to liberate their city.” The simple fact, Raspail said bluntly, is that “without the use of force, we will never stop the invasion.”

Tarrant took that worldview to heart on Friday and attempted to couch his racially inspired terrorism by drawing on the more palatable language of ethnopluralism, a concept now popular in far-right circles as a method of deflecting charges of racism. “[T]he attack was not an attack on diversity, but an attack in the name of diversity,” the accused killer wrote in his manifesto. “To ensure diverse peoples remain diverse, separate, unique, undiluted [sic] in unrestrained in cultural or ethnic expression and autonomy.”

This concept reached its political apogee in a country that Camus and many white nationalists are fond of citing as a warning of what’s to come for the beleaguered white race: South Africa. From 1948 to 1994, the idea of autonomy for different races in different places was central to Pretoria’s policy of apartheid (literally, “separateness”) and was sold to the world under the name “separate development.”

It was the brainchild of Hendrik Verwoerd, a Nazi-sympathizing Afrikaner nationalist during World War II who served as South Africa’s prime minister from 1958 until he was assassinated in 1966. After his death, the usually unsympathetic opposition newspaper Rand Daily Mail praised him for refining a crude ideology of white supremacy “into a sophisticated and rationalised philosophy of separate development.” Indeed, in the waning days of apartheid, the government sought to establish “independent” black puppet states based on tribe and language in distant and undesirable locations; by doing so, the apartheid intelligentsia had hoped to externalize its race problem by stripping blacks of South African nationality.

Like Tarrant’s ideological smorgasbord, the idea of a great replacement is not an original one. The concept has a long pedigree in France, dating back to the late 19th century, when nationalist authors such as Maurice Barrès lamented rootless cosmopolitans and celebrated a France rooted in identity and lineage. He was a leading voice among the anti-Semitic propagandists during the Dreyfus affair and warned of new French citizens who wanted to impose their way of life. At the time, the “invaders” he feared were Jews—not Muslims. “They are in contradiction to our civilization,” he wrote of the immigrants becoming French. “The triumph of their worldview will coincide with the real ruin of our fatherland. The name France may well survive; the special character of our country will be destroyed.”

In the 1920s, the businessman François Coty, who owned the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, presented the great replacement in more concrete terms. The internationalists had decided, he wrote in the paper, “to replace the French race with another race.” Having arranged for the demise of the true French and the importation of new citizens, with their French identity on paper, these new arrivals would become “naturalized enemies.”

Camus habitually plays “the role of ‘respectable’ reactionary,” explained the journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams in the New Yorker a few months after Charlottesville, “because his opposition to multicultural globalism is plausibly high-minded, principally aesthetic, even well-mannered—a far cry from the manifest brutality of the skinheads and the tattooed white nationalists who could put into action the xenophobic ideas expressed in ‘Le Grand Remplacement.’” Now, as those inspired by his words unleash terror, Camus is once again seeking to disavow violent extremists. But dodge as he might, violent extremists clearly see themselves as responding to his call to halt the colonization of Europe. In the hours after the New Zealand attack, Camus retweeted a French lawyer’s defense of his position—putting a litigator’s twist on the U.S. National Rifle Association’s favorite evasion: “Bullets kill people, not ideas.”

It’s an odd argument for Camus to uphold—a man who, for all his faults, appreciates the power of ideas. Indeed, his writings are peppered with references to Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, and the French philosopher Ernest Renan while decrying “the disappearance of culture and identity” and railing against the “endless propaganda” of the “immigrationist and multiculturalist” system. Alain de Benoist—another French thinker who has long been a prominent figure in right-wing circles and who is, like Camus, linked with today’s identitarian movement—has been more explicit and honest about the relationship between philosophical thought and action: As Williams noted in the New Yorker, “Benoist argues that white Europeans should not just support restrictive immigration policies; they should oppose such diluting ideologies as multiculturalism and globalism, taking seriously ‘the premise that ideas play a fundamental role in the collective consciousness.’”

If they do, then no matter how vociferously he condemns violence, Camus cannot easily walk away from the terror his ideas have now inspired.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He is the author of Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy and The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Twitter: @sasha_p_s

Sarah Wildman is Foreign Policy’s deputy editor for print and the host of the First Person podcast. She is the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. Twitter: @SarahAWildman

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