The European Union Was Once a Racist, Far-Right Project

On the eve of the French presidential election, the future of France not only hangs in the balance but also that of Europe. Or, at least, a certain idea of Europe — namely, one based on the institutions and laws of the European Union. Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the extreme right-wing National Front party, has centered her campaign on the recentering of France as a sovereign nation. At a press conference last month devoted to her foreign policy, Le Pen announced to no one’s surprise: “It’s time we finished with the European Union.”

But does this mean Le Pen is finished with, well, other ideas for a unified Europe? The blueprints for one alternative Europe can be found in her party’s ideological basement. Were she to venture there, Le Pen would discover — or rediscover — the writings of thinkers associated with France’s so-called Nouvelle Droite, or “New Right.” While these thinkers never held — or, at least, held for very long — prominent positions within the National Front, they were there at the party’s beginnings and have left their imprint on its evolution. Scorning the universal values of the Enlightenment that underpin the EU, these thinkers instead propose a united Europe bound together by what, in their eyes, are the irrefutable and irresistible claims of race and ethnicity.

Among the many individuals who have circled around the dark sun of ethno-nationalism, few have followed a more bizarre orbit that Jean Thiriart. As a young self-described leftist in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Thiriart joined Les Amis du Grand Reich Allemand, a collaborationist organization that, as its name suggests, thrilled to the prospect of a unified Europe under Nazi control. Imprisoned after the war for collaborationism, Thiriart kept mostly quiet until the early 1960s, when he co-founded Jeune Europe, a movement that initially found common ground with members of the Organisation Armée Secrète, the French paramilitary and terrorist group opposed to Algeria’s independence from France.

After the publication in 1964 of his political testament, Un empire de 400 millions d’hommes: L’Europe, Thiriart militated for a centralized continental-wide party, working toward the unification of Europe. Claiming the existence of a single and Caucasian “community from Narvik to Cape Town, from Brest to Bucharest,” Thiriart’s group glommed onto a position found in nearly every organization falling under the umbrella of the New Right: The clear and present danger to Europe was not communist Russia but capitalist America. Through the several iterations of Thiriart’s groups — a chameleon-like trait common to organizations at both extremes of the political spectrum — they were all aimed, in Thiriart’s words, at forming a “global front against U.S. imperialism.”

The political scientists Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg, who retrace this idiosyncratic life in their indispensable account Far-Right Politics in Europe, note that Thiriart eventually reached out to Arab countries in his quest for a global front against America. Having begun his career in the company of white supremacists, Thiriart ended it in the company of Arab nationalists. His hope was to form international brigades that would carry on the struggle not just against the United States but also its partner in global crime, Israel. When he died in 1992, he apparently left behind several unfinished manuscripts arguing, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the battle against the United States was even more imperative.

While Thiriart’s place in the far-right solar system resembles an exoplanet, not so for the rather Jovian Alain de Benoist, the founder of GRECE, a French ethno-nationalist think tank. With GRECE’s creation in 1968, so too was born the term “New Right.” Just as the latter term is a catchall for a great variety of movements, the work of the think tank also tends to be eclectic. Benoist would be the first to reject comparisons between GRECE and, say, the American Heritage Foundation. The traditional division between left and right, he argues, is obsolete. By the “right,” Benoist announced in his book Vu de droite (“The Right View”), he means “the attitude that considers the diversity of the world, and as a consequence the related inequalities necessarily produced by it, to be a good, and the gradual homogenization of the world, advocated and realized by the 2,000-year-old discourse of egalitarian ideology, to be an evil.”

With this claim, Benoist challenged the entire spectrum of traditional political parties in France. Conservatives no less than progressives, Gaullists no less than Socialists, found little common ground with the territory staked out by Benoist. A small number of political figures tied to GRECE, most notably Alain Madelin, who served as a minister in the Jacques Chirac era, eventually slipped into mainstream conservatism. Tellingly, many others drifted in the 1980s and 1990s toward the National Front, most importantly men like Jean-Yves Le Gallou, Pierre Vial, and Yann Blot.

Not surprisingly, given his institution’s acronym, Benoist locates the proper European heritage in ancient (and pagan) Greece. While he portrays this as a cultural legacy, racism is never far from the surface. As the scholar Anne-Marie Duranton-Crabol observes, GRECE (if not ancient Greece) tends to “exalt racial values, which presuppose racial differences.” Like a Gallic Charles Murray, Benoist plays with words as he plays with fire, skillfully fudging the line between race and culture, value and difference. His scholarship gives a gleam of respectability to what his critics insist, quite simply, is a racist ideology.

While Benoist avoids such blunt language, this is not the case with those like Jean-Marie Le Pen who turn to him as an intellectual guarantor of their racist worldview. In a sulfurous interview he gave two years ago to the extreme right-wing paper Rivarol, Le Pen declared that France had to collaborate with Russia “in order to save boreal [northern] Europe and the white world.” By invoking the toxic claim that Europeans descend from an “arctic” or Aryan race, the elder Le Pen, and indeed Benoist, is not alone. Writers like Jean Raspail (one of Steve Bannon’s favorite authors), Eric Zemmour, and Renaud Camus all warn against what Renaud has described as “le grand replacement” — namely, the threat that immigration and globalization pose to the racial character of Europe.

Like Murray’s reputation, Benoist’s public status is, to say the least, controversial. In 2015, the best-selling leftist French intellectual Michel Onfray declared that he preferred to read a “valid analysis” written by Benoist than an “invalid analysis” written by, say, fellow celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. Then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls quickly accused Onfray of legitimizing not just Benoist’s ideas but by extension those of the National Front. In response, Onfray declared that only a “cretin” would judge a claim on the politics of its author and not the merits of its argument.

While Onfray’s reply was just, Valls’s provocation was not entirely unjust. Onfray, who places himself on the far-left, and Benoist, who is placed, despite his protests, on the far-right, share a common ideological ground. Both thinkers are appalled by the rise of religious extremism and are attracted to a post-religious, or pagan, basis for society; both thinkers identify American capitalism and popular culture as two of Europe’s principal foes. Benoist declares that the “idéologie du même,” or “ideology of the same,” flows from America, leveling everything in its path. For Onfray, consumerism is the rot at the heart of the West. In his just published book, Decadence, he asks: “Today, who would give his life for the gadgets of consumerism that have become cult objects in the religion of capitalism? No one.”

At the end of the day, according to Benoist and Onfray, the West is lurching toward the end of its day. Benoist’s prognosis is grim: “The world seems to have entered an implosive, in fact terminal, stage.”

In their survey, Camus and Lebourg cite Onfray’s positions as a measure of Benoist’s success. They emphasize the New Right’s key role in the “irruption in intellectual debate of ideas” in France — ideas that careen from the critique of anti-monotheism (especially in regard to Islam) and embrace of communitarianism, the lambasting of consumerism and the normalization “of discussions about the respective share of the innate and acquired in individual aptitudes.” While not all of their concerns overlap, GRECE and the National Front continue to share deep affinities.

Though these individuals did not stay, the same cannot be said for their ideas. From her embrace of French “sovereignism” to her admiration of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, from her emphasis on “national preference” to her attachment to a strong central state, Marine Le Pen has made GRECE’s ideas her own. While she rejects the European Union, Le Pen praises a free union of European nations. Though she would never use the term employed by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who repeatedly called for the union of “boreal peoples,” Le Pen nevertheless shares the same apocalyptic vision of the conflict between East and West found in the writings of Benoist (as well as those of the essayist Eric Zemmour and novelist Michel Houellebecq.) And it’s on the basis of this vision of an unavoidable civilizational conflict that Le Pen’s party believes Europe should be united, the formal degree to which is still to be determined.

What had begun as an apparently quixotic effort in the 1960s to influence the ideas of political and cultural leaders on the subject of Europe is now, a half-century later, an increasingly widespread and toxic worldview. It is an image of today’s united Europe cast in a dark mirror of apocalyptic and racialist thinking. In the case of France, voters will decide in less than two months whether or not those ideas will move from intellectual discourse to state policy.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. His most recent book is Boswell's Enlightenment.