“We are the Greenpeace of the nationalist right,” Aurelien Verhassel, the leader of far-right group Generation Identity, told me during an interview. I had to make a real effort not to laugh out loud. The comparison to the prominent environmental organisation is ridiculous, I thought. What could activists who struggle to protect the environment have in common with those who call for the expulsion of French Muslims?
A couple of months later, in the spring of 2018, Verhassel and his followers occupied the Col de l’Echelle mountain pass in the Alps, which falls on the route many migrants and refugees take to get from Italy to France. Amid the snow-capped mountains, around 100 activists from Generation Identity set up a bright-red fence along the France-Italy border.
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It was a perfect photo-op: They wore extravagant blue uniforms and drove around in shiny four-by-fours. Two helicopters, emblazoned with the logo of their movement, were flying around.
It struck me how close the idea behind this whole operation was to Greenpeace’s modus operandi: A publicity stunt, filmed and carefully presented to the world to ensure maximum effect and engagement. For Generation Identity, it didn’t matter that they didn’t stop any migrants that day, the mission was still a resounding success. Nearly all major French media outlets reported on their operation. On social media, their propaganda videos were shared thousands of times.
Generation Identity has its own mission within the far-right circles. Their goal is to force issues of identity onto the media and the political agendas of mainstream parties.
The movement does not participate in elections – they leave that to the far-right National Front. It also sets itself apart from other radical far-right groups, such as the Defence Union Group (GUD) or the now-dissolved French Work (L’Oeuvre Francaise) – by trying to “de-demonise” itself.
Among Generation Identity’s ranks, you won’t find any skinheads, nor any revealing tattoos; they very much make an effort to present themselves as decent, hard-working young people concerned with the problems of their society.
The movement has also abandoned anti-Semitic rhetoric, references to World War II or colonialism. Its main battleground is the public space. To showcase an ideal image of themselves, Generation Identity followers host all sorts of activities: they open bars, set up gyms, and distribute food to the homeless.
But these activities are nothing other than another way to spread their political ideas. Their bars glorify “regional identities”. Their boxing classes teach “native French people” how to defend themselves from “the lowlifes” (read: black and Arab youths). Their charity towards homeless people is reserved solely for white people, because, as far as they are concerned, “non-European” homeless people are in a privileged position and receive benefits from the state.
There are just a few hundred activists who participate in these actions, but that’s not the point. Social media serves as an echo chamber for their actions and amplifies their message far beyond their immediate political circles. This identitarian soft power is akin to that of the American alt-right, which helped bring Donald Trump to power.
The terror attacks of 2015 and 2016 in France directly fed into Generation Identity’s discourse of hatred. Its activists have maintained the idea that there is a civil war between the “native French people” and the Muslims of France. They warn of what they call the “great replacement” or the “Islamisation of Europe”.
Their political programme is focused on one ultimate goal: “remigration” or the forced departure of “non-Europeans” from France, and more specifically the Muslims. In essence, they are calling for ethnic cleansing.
Generation Identity’s ambition is to force the concept of “remigration” onto the French political mainstream. They are building up to it, gradually introducing various other ideas.
In the summer of 2017, for example, they launched an intense media campaign, accusing the volunteers who rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea of being “human traffickers”. One year later, this argument was taken up by Emmanuel Macron when he accused the German NGO Lifetime of “playing into the hands of smugglers”. That was a major victory for the Identitarians.
Since its creation in 2012, Generation Identity has shed a great number of members to the National Front, the most famous of them being one of its founders, Philippe Vardon. He is now an adviser to NF leader Marine Le Pen.
Generation Identity is the right arm of the National Front: it has brought the party’s strategy of de-demonisation of the far right to perfection. But it is also its weakness. As soon as you scratch the surface, their slick image starts to chip away.
As the Al Jazeera documentary Generation Hate has shown, their members engage in racist assaults and veneration of Nazi Germany. Exposing their true face remains one of the best ways to combat their racist ideas and neutralise their toxic effect on French society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.