Once relegated to the ‘fringe,’ conspiracies and narratives promulgated by members of the far-right movement have now moved into mainstream discourse. The mainstreaming of far-right narratives in the media and politics has surged in line with the rise of far-right movements in Europe and the United States. For example, in France, a nation with a long history of far-right movements, the former leader of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen, referenced one such conspiracy – ‘the great replacement theory’ – as early as 2011, warning of an “organised replacement of our population.” One year later, the anti-migrant, far-right group Génération Identitaire (GI) emerged in France. GI propelled the great replacement theory into the mainstream, as the group orchestrated a campaign of hateful rhetoric and incited violence across Europe.
As the number of violent and terrorist attacks tied to these harmful narratives continues to grow, there is an imperative to examine how far-right ideas have gained legitimacy. It is important to note that conspiracy theories are prevalent across a wide range of extremist groups and some theories are closely interconnected. For example, one study found that antisemitic capitalist conspiracy theories are found in right-wing and left-wing extremist groups’ ideologies.
This Insight demonstrates how features of conspiracy theories known as the great replacement and cultural Marxism have become entangled to create an all-encompassing narrative of existential threats to Western civilisation. Both far-right and mainstream actors utilise this overarching narrative of Western decline because it provides a simplistic frame to explain a wide variety of phenomena, compounding its ability to gain legitimacy and respectability. The case of French far-right politician and media personality Éric Zemmour illustrates how ideas that were once considered unacceptable are normalised in public discourse, as this narrative of Western decline was amplified on social media and in mainstream media throughout the French 2022 presidential campaign.
How Deep-Rooted Conspiracies Merge
This section begins with an overview of the great replacement theory and cultural Marxism. I then outline how these two conspiracy theories, with unique histories and contents, have become fused in the modern far-right context.
The Great Replacement Theory
The great replacement theory has gained widespread media attention in recent years after being referenced publicly in relation to several high-profile domestic terrorist and violent extremist attacks. Proponents of the great replacement argue that ‘native’ white Europeans are being replaced in their ‘home countries’ by immigrants, Muslims and people from non-European countries. Mainstream discourse contains sanitised versions that promote the core tenets of this conspiracy theory, such as references to an ‘invasion’ or the ‘substitution’ of culture. The great replacement theory has ties to French nationalist literature, like nationalist Maurice Barrès’ 1987 novel Les Déracinés (The Uprooted), and writer Jean Raspail’s 1973 The Camp of the Saints. White nationalists translated Raspail’s novel from French and helped distribute it within the U.S., where white supremacy has a long history. Over the past several years, alternative social media platforms, fringe forums and encrypted chat channels have helped spread the conspiracy theory to different online communities.
Comparatively, cultural Marxism is a relatively underexplored conspiracy theory. Proponents of cultural Marxism argue that leftist intellectuals have plotted in secret at least since the 1930s to undermine Western civilisation, its traditions and values. The discourse of cultural Marxism dates back to literature from influential Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Then, American conservative thinkers in the 1990s reinterpreted this literature to construct a conspiracy that became a moniker for all liberal values and ideas that the right rallies against. The 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway widely publicised the ideas underpinning cultural Marxism, which were transmitted to global audiences through social media and repeated among social networks. Today, the conspiracy’s key components are found in political discourses across the globe.
Fused Conspiracy Theories in Modern Far-Right Movements
Though they have different historical roots, these two conspiracies have become entangled by political and media actors who parse aspects of the theories together to construct an all-encompassing worldview that provides simplistic explanations for societal and cultural changes. Different actors legitimise the narrative by relying on the parlance of ‘alt-history’; this discursive construction assumes where history is headed and feeds on a desire to return to the ‘glory days,’ defined by hierarchical structures of power that favour white people. The narrative can explain the shift from the status quo of unflinching white power.
Adherents of these conspiracies both oppose multiculturalism and political correctness, which believers invoke to make their ideas palatable to the public. Supporters contend that multiculturalism threatens the white European and American way of life through the loss of cultural identity – the utmost threat to the white population. Additionally, ‘politically correct’ language is viewed as a tool to conceal the ‘truth’ about Jews, Muslims, or ‘liberal elites’ – the out-group – who are plotting to undermine Western civilisation.
Supporters of cultural Marxism believe globalists have infiltrated economic and educational institutions to encourage a worldview that abandons ‘traditional’ ideas like Christianity and embraces ‘liberal’ ideas like mass immigration. While versions of the great replacement theory emphasise different threats, such as replacement or ‘Islamisation,’ the discourse also helps provide simple, identity-confirming explanations for the decline of white nations. Secret agreements among traitorous liberal politicians introduce policies that welcome ‘them’ – ‘illegal aliens’ or ‘invaders.’
Combined, both narratives illustrate that white people are under constant threat from a perceived enemy as a response to new cultural, economic and social anxieties produced by globalisation. Within great replacement discourse, this threat is primarily from mass immigration. Yet, the threat comes in many different forms in cultural Marxism discourse, like anti-racist courses in schools or the Black Lives Matter Movement. Ultimately, Western white populations are perceived victims of a wide-ranging plot coordinated by liberal elites, migrants, Jews or Muslims.
The Western Decline in France: The ‘Enemy Within’
The discourse of Éric Zemmour, a long-time journalist, columnist and 2022 presidential contender in France, provides an illustrative example of how the inter-related narratives of the great replacement theory and cultural Marxism have become mainstream. Zemmour legitimises the narratives through a discursive construction that relies on a battle between ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ which I argue is teleological; it prescribes history as an ongoing battle between the in-group and the nefarious out-group that threatens to undermine ‘our’ way of life. Zemmour also leverages nostalgia to harden a sense of identity during periods of social change and uses historical anecdotes to justify his argument. These features of Zemmour’s discourse compound the narrative’s ability to gain legitimacy and respectability. Additionally, Zemmour strategically uses traditional media – television – and social media to amplify his rhetoric to broader audiences. This case study is indicative of a wider global phenomenon in which far-right narratives are becoming more widely accepted in mainstream discourse.
Before entering politics, Zemmour’s discourse was characterised by xenophobia, racism, and nativism. Zemmour’s best-selling 2014 book Le Suicide Francais (The French Suicide) invokes the discourse of cultural Marxism to explain the perceived decline of France since the 1970s. According to Zemmour, during that period, left-wing elites began to destroy traditional values of nation and family, imposing a “feminist, pro-gay, egalitarian agenda.” In 2016, Zemmour warned of an “invasion” of Muslims in France on television and in 2020, he characterised child migrants as thieves, killers and rapists who should be “sent back”.
Despite convictions for racist hate speech, Zemmour promoted this all-encompassing narrative about the decline of Western civilisation on his television show. Zemmour’s show on CNews, Face à l’info continuously attracted more than half a million viewers when it aired from 2019 to 2021. In part, Zemmour’s discourse earned CNews the title of “France’s Fox News” in some media circles, echoing Tucker Carlon’s discourse on Fox.
In 2021, Zemmour promoted his latest bestselling novel La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France has not had its final word) to 540,000 viewers on CNews. The Economist’s Sophie Pedder demonstrates how the book, published in French, revives nativist and anti-Semitic arguments about the death of French civilisation orchestrated by the “enemy within” – namely Jewish people and foreigners – that were first developed by French nationalists like Maurice Barrès.
Additionally, Zemmour advocated for the restoration of a grandiose past in a video posted to social media announcing his presidential bid in late November 2021. The video displayed nostalgic images of cherished, simpler times, warning that the France “of Joan of Arc was disappearing.” Violent scenes of social unrest stood in contrast to this picture of a glorious past, while Zemmour argued that French people are beginning to “feel like foreigners in [their] own country.”
In an interview with the UK’s leading conservative magazine The Spectator, Zemmour articulates the unifying narrative to describe the pitfalls of globalisation or the destruction of Western civilisation. He again invokes cultural Marxist discourse to argue that European liberals are waging a “generalised offensive against French and Western culture, against the white heterosexual man” using “politically correct” policies. Further, he claims these elite politicians are waging “war” through immigration – a battle between “us,” white Europeans, and “them”, migrants coming from the Middle East who “want to invade our European countries.” Zemmour argues their religion, Islam, viewed as a totalitarian political ideology, and their cultural identity is “incompatible” with the traditional values of Western nations such as democracy. Zemmour also explicitly references the discourse of replacement, claiming that the masterminds of the plot are allowing “a foreign culture, history and civilisation to come and replace” formerly Christian, white European nations.
Social media amplification
Reminiscent of the alt-right movement’s social media campaign to bolster support for Trump during his presidential campaign in 2016, Zemmour’s anti-immigrant discourse featuring a return to ‘traditional’ values was strategically promoted on social media during his presidential campaign that began in November 2021, five months before the election in April 2022. Zemmour’s message was widely distributed on social media platforms with the help of Génération Z, a 10,000-member far-right youth group. A report on Zemmour’s rise on social media found that his presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram “exploded” throughout 2021. The report found that Zemmour garnered more than 50 million views on his YouTube channel by the beginning of March 2022, significantly outpacing his rivals, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.
Even before Zemmour announced he was running for President, the report found that news organisations gave his messages “excessive attention,” because his statements “easily translate [to trends] on social media”, which further helped legitimise his racist and xenophobic discourse. This social media amplification gave Zemmour the power to set the agenda during the campaign, influencing another right-wing candidate to reference the great replacement theory. This undue attention from mainstream media sources helped legitimise these harmful ideas because they are then discussed and debated with the rigour and acceptability of any other topic.
France’s New Far-Right Leader
While Zemmour faced political defeat in the French presidential election in April 2022, the new leader of France’s powerful far-right party, National Rally, continues to amplify Zemmour’s overarching narrative to create a sense of a population in danger. Jordan Bardella, the 27-year-old tapped late last year as the party’s new leader to replace Marine Le Pen, has legitimised the great replacement theory throughout his political career, and the notion of the destruction of ‘traditional,’ Christian European culture and identity through ‘Islamisation.’ Unlike Zemmour, Bardella states he is not yearning for a nostalgic past. Yet, his political discourse paints not only France, but all of Europe, as under constant threat from replacement by ‘Islamists’ and immigrants in the face of demographic change.
This Insight has demonstrated how attributes of the great replacement theory and cultural Marxism naturally bind together to create a compelling narrative leveraged by the far-right movement to explain the alleged decline of Western civilization and the oppression of white people. Various actors apply this master frame to undermine opposition and create a sense of a population in peril. While Zemmour’s pitch for Islamophobic, racist and sexist policies did not receive widespread support, the narrative of Western decline and white persecution that underpinned his presidential platform has become foundational to mainstream far-right ideology in France, and across the world.
Continued research on what coordination between various far-right groups means for the future of democracy is critical, as the transnational nature of the far-right movement has proved ideas do not exist in a vacuum, especially with developments in technology. The interplay between traditional media and social media must be examined further, as younger generations, of which Bardella is a part, use social media to gather information and share opinions within attitude-confirming echo chambers.
Sarah Cammarata is a researcher and open-source intelligence analyst focusing on far-right extremism, mainstreaming and conspiracy theories. She is a former defence and U.S. Congress reporter and holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.