By Matthijs Gardenier and Arthur Groz
The activity of the French far right outside traditional parties seems to depend to a large extent on the current political situation. Several social movement strategies can be identified among French far-right groups. The first is the participation to broader conservative or catch-all social movements where the presence of these groups is tolerated. From the fall of 2012, the Socialist government’s law opening marriage and adoption to same-sex couples was met with a massive opposition. This opposition was mainly organized in a collective, La Manif pour Tous (Protest for All). Different far-right groups took part in processions, spurred riots on the Champs Elysées and recruited members : The generational aspect was considerable in an environment marked by youthful sociology as well as by a high turnover.
The Yellow Vests movement appeared six years later, in October 2018. From the start, most French far right participated to the movement. Its influence did however remain marginal – with a few local exceptions, such as Lyon or Chambéry. It is remarkable that such a movement did not allow far-right activists to develop substantial networks. This failure can be explained by several factors: competition and street battles with left-wing and antifascist activists from the first weeks of the movement, lack of usable activist know-how, self-marginalization, and distancing from the main leading figures of the movement. The example of the intervention of Bastion Social activists illustrates such limits.
The Bastion Social and Génération Identitaire: two understandings of social movements
Far-right groups have also engaged social movement tactics of their own around their political organisations. These groups are political parties whose purpose is to engage into social movement activity rather than compete in elections as Cas Mudde has described this type of activism, for which the use of social media is extremely important..
The Bastion Social (Social Bastion) was a nationalist-revolutionary structure launched in June 2017. It was therefore a year and a half after the launch of the Bastion Social that the Yellow Vests movement appeared. It was immediately interpreted as a window of political opportunity. Insertion in the movement, however, was not done in an open way. Activists took on the yellow vest, filling this “empty signifier” with nationalist-revolutionary political content. Following an activist culture valuing the coup de force, they took part in the massive clashes, particularly in Paris. Such actions had no future: members of the Bastion Social failed to coordinate on a lasting basis with other extreme right-wing structures, or to recruit beyond their original supporters.
Génération Identitaire (Identitarian Generation), officially founded in September 2012, follows a more coherent and centralized strategy than that of Bastion Social. Its strategy constitutes a synthesis of past experiences. Its repertoire of contention therefore mixes various influences, from alter-globalization happenings to choreographies stemming from radical ultra supporterism.
Rather than following-up local protests to insert themselves into social movements, identitarian activists tried to shape both media and political agendas. its innovative strategy, Génération Identitaire thus comes up against the same pitfall as its competitors: the hegemony of a large far-right party at the electoral level and the marginalization of radical activism strongly limit the development possibilities of these groups. These constraints are illustrated by the modalities of intervention of activists in social movements: the parliamentary temptation pushes them to gradually withdraw from social movements, while activism threatens lasting legal structuring. The latest stunt of the group at the French-Spanish border led the group to be dissolved by French authorities in March 2021.
Anti migrant groups in Calais
Another type of social movement activity is that of anti-migrant movements, at crossroads between the insertion into broader conservative social movements and political organization activism. They mobilized in the city of Calais over a time span of five years. They intended to constitute a grassroots campaign of concerned citizens, but their use of vigilantism, some acts of violence, and their political radicality never allowed them to reach out to mainstream audiences in a way classical social movement do.
Surprisingly enough, these groups do not reproduce the model of political vigilantism that has been characteristic of the far right: squadrism, which is openly organized political violence. An interesting category to understand these groups would be “spectacular social media vigilantism”. Conceptualizing the action of these groups is not an easy task. Indeed, at first glance their approach seems to be oriented towards classical non-violent demonstrations. Nevertheless, violent acts against migrants appear in the wake of these events without these being explicitly claimed by the groups. This violence will be named “halo violence” as it appears in the wake of activities that are intrinsically violent.
It is therefore interesting to conceive the action of these groups from an interactional perspective. First, they inscribe themselves in a highly agonistic approach. Their mobilization takes place in relation to a figure of the enemy, personified by the social group of migrants. Secondly, vigilantism cannot be reduced to its tangible dimension: it is also the social staging of its threat that shapes its social existence. We therefore see here a use of vigilantism whose objective is not the direct territorial control of Calais: the ground is firmly held by the police. The repertoire of contention of vigilantism is above all useful to these groups in a perspective of visibility and mediatisation of their action. It allows them to create an audience trough social media, and thus to mobilize its public widely.
Their action crystallises three elements that we believe are characteristic of movements against immigration in France: a willingness to implement practices that are akin to vigilantism, a vision of the world where community is made possible by opposition to a figure of the enemy, and finally the spectacular staging of the collective’s repertoire of contention in order to favor viral communication on social media.
While the various movements mentioned constitute different configurations, the sequence between 2012 and 2019 was generally favorable to the inclusion of far-right activists into social movements. Their practice has been organized around three points: attempting to frame to the broader public claims that resonate with their themes, sharing collective practices, then forming and activating activist networks. The great diversity of groups and ideological positions as well as the disorderly aspect of the interventions sometimes leads to misinterpret the real impact of these activists. A study of the various social movements and extreme right-wing networks highlights a significant gap between a situation objectively favorable to their development (Mudde, 2019) and the relative weakness of existing networks. Isolation and fragmentation of activist structures, turnover in membership, and ideological vagueness do not allow yet the audience of the far right to be transformed into a potential activist pool. The lack of multi-positioned activists is particularly important. Unlike their left-wing rivals, far-right activists fail to integrate movements over time and to build broader coalitions. Their massive presence on social networks can then be interpreted as a compensatory overinvestment: the dead ends of grassroots activism are leading to a more marked occupation of digital spaces – with an increasingly marked gap between the two.