clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“You will not replace us”: a French philosopher explains the Charlottesville chant

American white nationalists may not realize it, but the fear of replacement is essential to the work of a controversial French writer named Renaud Camus.

RANCE-POLITICS-MIGRATION-FAR-RIGHT-DEMO
French writer Renaud Camus looks on on October 8, 2016 in Montpellier, southern France, during a protest of 'La ligue du Midi' far-right movement against the French migrants and refugees policy. / AFP / PASCAL GUYOT (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)
PASCAL GUYOT / Staff

Tiki torch–wielding white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday night, chanting, “You will not replace us,” and, “Jews will not replace us.”

For many Americans, this was a shocking thing to hear. But for Europeans, the idea that white Christian identity is being threatened by ethnic diversity and multiculturalism has become a common refrain on the far right.

Indeed, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Netherlands’ far-right Freedom Party, tweeted on Sunday, “Our population is being replaced. No more.” And fear of “replacement” has long been a rallying cry of the European youth alt-right movement, Generation Identity.

The popularity of this idea is due in part to the work of a deeply controversial French philosopher named Renaud Camus. Camus argues that European civilization and identity are at risk of being subsumed by mass migration, especially from Muslim countries — it’s a concept he refers to as the “Great Replacement.”

I decided to reach out to Camus on Sunday to ask him what he thought of the fact that neo-Nazis and white nationalists in the United States were chanting slogans that appeared to have been influenced by his ideas (whether they knew it or not).

He seemed surprised by the notion that his ideas could in any way be associated with the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville. He condemned the violence and insisted he has no connection to Nazism: “If the marchers are Nazis and/or anti-Semites, or if they make [violent] attacks — I am of course very much against all of that, and I cannot say they are inspired by me.”

But, he said, “I can very well understand why people in America would chant, ‘We won’t be replaced,’ and I approve of that.”

What follows is a partial transcript of our exchange, lightly edited for clarity and length.


Sarah Wildman

Could you explain a little bit about your philosophy and whether you think it applies to the US context?

Renaud Camus

It applies to all contexts in the world, I think. Replacement is the very essence of modernity that things are being replaced [by industry]. Objects are being replaced, landscapes are being replaced. Everything is being replaced. It is the very character of what it is to be alive today. Of course it does apply to America, as it applies to all the world.

Sarah Wildman

My sense is that your work has been much more focused on Europe, immigration, and Islam. Correct me if I'm wrong on that. Can you articulate a bit for me how your work, and the idea of the Great Replacement, applies to Muslim immigration specifically — or if it doesn't?

Renaud Camus

No, it doesn't.

Sarah Wildman

Okay.

Renaud Camus

I think the replacement is, in general, a phenomenon. Islam [and Muslim migration] is just the form it takes in Occidental Europe especially, and especially in France probably. And it does make the matter worse because it is very strong, it’s a very strong culture and civilization with its own language and its own religion. But it's not essential to the very idea of replacement. And for instance, in Western Europe, the replacement is just as much by black Africa as it is by Northern Islamic Africans.

Sarah Wildman

But the idea is that of a replacement of white, Christian Europe, right? Or is it in general?

Renaud Camus

It's about Western civilization as a whole, yes, of which Christianity is one central composing matter. But not only that. It could also be Jewish civilization in Europe or free-thinking civilization in Europe, or sort of European tradition, which are progressively replaced by another population. Of course, if you change populations, you can't expect the same civilization to hold on.

Sarah Wildman

And your idea is that, basically, this is a risk? This “replacement” is not a positive — in your mind, it's negative?

Renaud Camus

Yes, it is very negative. I think the very idea of replacing everything by something else is awful. I think it's disastrous. I think it's the worst totalitarianism at work in the world today. So yes I think it's perfectly awful for the world to become, for instance, just a site for tourism and not for normal places.

Like Las Vegas is a replacement for Venice. Or amusement parks are replacements for nature or natural monuments. Everything is being replaced by mass production. I think it is perfectly awful, yes, because I think the dignity of man is that he is not replaceable. The nightmare is what I call “the replaceable man,” the man who is just something which can be replaced by someone else or something else at any moment.

I think that's just perfectly terrible. It is the worst thing to happen since Nazism.

Sarah Wildman

You mentioned in a YouTube video you produced in July 2016 that the candidacy and campaign of Donald Trump connected in some ways to this idea and these fears of replacement. Can you address how or if Trump's support from white nationalists might be a part of this same conversation or same anxiety?

Renaud Camus

Well, Trump is, of course, a very complex figure because he seems to be, by his culture, part of the big replacement. For instance, his view on ecology, it seems to me, is absolutely terrible. ... I wasn’t very impressed by his apartment, for instance, where everything is horrible and fake. He is part of a totally fake world.

But on the other hand, he seems to be opposed to massive immigration to America, which is something anti-replacist. So I have very mixed feelings about Mr. Trump. I cannot say I am very ardently Trumpist. But I approve of his resistance to massive immigration, yes.

Sarah Wildman

The white nationalists in Charlottesville were chanting, “You will not replace us,” and, “Jews will not replace us.” Do you think that sense of anxiety about replacement comes from the ideas you’ve been articulating?

Renaud Camus

The refusal to be replaced is a very strong feeling in man. It doesn't really need to be put into hearts and into minds.

The will not to be replaced was at the center of resistance to colonialism. The refusal of being a colony in India or in Africa is very much part of anti-replacism. People don't want other people to come in their territory, in their country, and change their cultures and their religions, their way of living, their way of eating, their way of dressing.

It is a worry that is central to the very essence of being human. Being human is being not replaceable. That is, not being an object, not being a thing.

Sarah Wildman

But do you worry about this idea being used by white nationalists? These white nationalists also speak against, for example, Jews and African Americans. Is this something you're concerned about?

Renaud Camus

They are marching against Jews? They are Nazis? Then they cannot be inspired by me, who is the very contrary of all that.

If the marchers are Nazis and/or anti-Semites, or if they make attacks — I am of course very much against all of that, and I cannot say they are inspired by me. I certainly do not approve of attacks, of whatever origins they might be. I have a very small political party called “Innocence” — I am strongly nonviolent.

Sarah Wildman

So you would condemn the violence that took place in Charlottesville? Is that what you're saying?

Renaud Camus

Oh, yes, certainly, totally, and without the slightest reserve.

Sarah Wildman

So even though they were chanting, "We will not be replaced," do you think they took this idea to a point that you would not support? And, obviously, some of them used Nazi imagery, which is something that you don't support? They used Nazi imagery, and they used swastikas.

Renaud Camus

You are asking me if I support that?! I think it’s absolutely horrible, awful. I can very well understand why people in America would think “we won’t be replaced,” and I approve of that. But if they are Nazis or if they ram cars into people, I am appalled by the attitude.

Maybe there is a slight confusion between several kinds of people. Are they all the same? Are you saying all the people marching and chanting, “We won’t be replaced,” are Nazis? Is that what you are saying?

Sarah Wildman

No. I'm not saying that. I can't speak to who they all are, obviously, but I think in the United States we have seen a resurgence of a kind of white nationalism and some pro-Nazi sentiment that seems to be emboldened.

Renaud Camus

These are very different — white nationalism or Nazism.

Sarah Wildman

Wait, I'm sorry. Say that again. So you’re saying you think white nationalism and Nazis are two different things?

Renaud Camus

Yes. Very different, I certainly hope so. Although I would not define myself by white nationalism, that is not my way of thinking or my way of speaking, but I kind of understand that whites, wherever they are in the world and especially in South Africa, tend to be very anxious about their destiny. There is a very horrible drama taking place now in South Africa, about being white.

Sarah Wildman

Do you consider your ideology or philosophy racist? Is racism a negative in your mind?

Renaud Camus

I cannot consider my general conception of the world or myself “racist” since the word is already taken by something else entirely.

But I think races do exist and that they are infinitely precious, all of them, like everything — sexes, cultures, civilizations, private property, nations — which helps men and women resist general interchangeability and makes each human being unique, irreplaceable.

I think one of the dramas of modernity is that anti-racism has taken the word “race” in exactly the same silly pseudoscientific and incredibly limited way that “racists” did before them.

I pray for the conservation of all races, beginning with those which are the most under menace.

Sarah Wildman

Which are those under the most menace?

Renaud Camus

Well, probably the white one, which is by far the least numerous of the old major classical “races.” By the privileges it has long enjoyed, it has been, in a manner of speaking, the aristocracy of the world.

I would say that this French race, or, if you’d rather, the French people, in all its dimensions — ethnic, cultural, civilizational — is especially under menace: It is fast losing its own territory, where its own culture and civilization is quickly becoming just one among others, and not the most dynamic, and which is rapidly being colonized.

Sarah Wildman

Is coexistence possible? Is multiculturalism an idea that can work?

Renaud Camus

Everything is always possible. But it is not so desirable that it should be artificially created where it did not exist before. It generates violence, crime, mistrust, misery, ugliness.

Sarah Wildman

But the white nationalists chanting against being replaced are against both African Americans and Jews, among other groups in America. But these are both groups already in America. How does this fit the idea of replacism?

Renaud Camus

I’m afraid there might be a slight misunderstanding between us. You ask me questions about those people in Charlottesville as if I was an expert on the subject. I never heard of them before three days ago, and I certainly cannot tell you who they are and what they want. I suspect, and I hope, that they might not be all such as the general press describe them, namely racist neo-Nazi white supremacists.

On the other hand, I totally sympathize with the slogan: “We will not be replaced.” And I think Americans have every good reason to be worried about their country, one of the two main elements that make up Western civilization, being changed into just another poor, derelict, hyperviolent, and stupefied quarter of the “global village.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.