An Al Jazeera investigation has revealed members of a French far-right group carrying out attacks on young Arabs, including a teenage girl, and making Nazi salutes in the city of Lille.
Secretly filmed footage from Generation Identity’s headquarters in the northern city also expose close ties between the violent youth group and Marine Le Pen‘s National Front despite a push by the party to distance itself from its xenophobic and racist roots.
Here’s all you need to know about Generation Identity.
Generation Identity (GI) is one of Europe’s fastest growing and most prominent far-right movements. The organisation was set up in France six years ago, and now has branches in many European countries, including Italy, Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The pan-European group, estimated to have thousands of activists and an online following of tens of thousands more, advocates the defence of what it sees as the identity and culture of white Europeans from what it calls the “great replacement” by immigration and “Islamisation”.
GI has its roots in the Identitarian movement, which sees Europe’s identity as white and Christian, that began in France after the second world war and is currently enjoying a resurgence.
GI presents itself as a patriotic movement and claims to be non-violent and non-racist.
It uses a symbol that represents the Spartans’ shields at the battle of Thermopylae when Europeans resisted a Persian army.
Its key policy is “remigration” – the removal of non-European immigrants to their countries of origin or those of their ancestors.
This concept is at the core of GI’s vision for France’s future and was detailed in a policy document the group released during the 2017 presidential campaign. In a secretly filmed conversation by Al Jazeera, Jean-David Cattin, a GI leader, said France could force former colonies to take back migrants – by conditioning development aid on the return of non-European residents and migrants.
“We are France. We have nuclear weapons. We give them hundreds of millions in development aid,” he said. “We’d say: ‘Listen, we’d love to help you out financially, but you’ve got to take back your guys.'”
Mathias Destal, a journalist who has been investigating France’s far right for years, called the concept “crazy” and likened it to ethnic cleansing.
“It would mean deporting thousands and thousands of people to countries which are supposedly their countries of origin because their ancestors might have lived there or because the colour of their skin or their culture are associated with countries which are not France … so it would practically be ethnic cleansing.”
Generation Identity first came to prominence in France when it occupied a mosque in Poitiers in the west of the country in 2012. Some 73 protesters occupied the mosque for more than six hours before police ejected them. Days later, they issued a “declaration of war” on multiculturalism and called for a national referendum on Muslim immigration.
Last year, the group launched a boat mission called “Defend Europe” seeking to disrupt refugee rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea. They raised more than 50,000 euros ($57,079) in less than three weeks, but the mission failed when the GI’s boat was blocked from refuelling in Greece and Tunisia.
In April, more than 100 activists tried to shut off a snowy mountain pass on the Franco-Italian border used by migrants. After erecting a makeshift barrier there, they unfurled a banner which read: “You will not make Europe your home. No way. Back to your homeland.”
Robin D’Angelo, a French political analyst, described GI’s strategy as one of “media guerilla warfare”.
“For them, the objective is to be talked about as much as possible in order to spread their message throughout society, in political circles and to force certain themes into the debate,” he said.
“All these actions will have a huge media relay, all these actions will be filmed by their teams and it will snowball on social networks by being relayed, by being retweeted, by being shared, and so the message spreads,” D’Angelo said, noting the group has sought to cultivate huge followings on social media.
Secretly filmed footage from GI’s branch in Lille suggests this is not the case.
Aurelien Verhassel, the leader of GI’s Flanders branch based in Lille, is among many members who have convictions for violence.
Verhassel, who was handed a five-month prison sentence that he’s appealing for an attack on two North African teenagers, was secretly filmed telling GI members: “The advantage is that we’re in a violent environment and everyone accepts that. That’s a good thing. That’s what I like.”
Members of the group were also filmed carrying out racist attacks, admitting to a series of other assaults on Muslims, and making Nazi salutes.