In the United States, recently the culture wars are being waged at school board meetings and outside drag shows, while in France they are increasingly taking place in towns welcoming migrants. Specifically, far-right groups are targeting migrant centers that accommodate refugees and asylum seekers while their applications are being processed by the state. This is the outcome of the heavy influence on the French far right by the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, a white supremacist “argument” that alleges there is a plot by political elites to “replace” the “native” population with a foreign one (see Global Project Against Hate and Extremism’s reporting on the mainstreaming of the Great Replacement). These claims don’t have a basis in reality, yet for the far right, countering migrant centers such as those in Saint-Brevin are seen as matters of existential survival. And in the last month, anti-immigrant hate in France has escalated to a more dangerous stage.
On March 22, 2023, Mayor Yannick Morez and his wife woke up at 5:00 in the morning to the sound of people knocking on their door to warn them that their house was on fire. Morez suspects that his car had been the target of a Molotov cocktail, and the fire then spread to the side of the house. A fire expert later confirmed the likelihood of an arson attack, and Morez has chosen to pursue charges. Last year, it was announced that the French state would be opening a reception center for asylum seekers (Centre d’accueil de demandeurs d’asile (CADA)) in Saint-Brevin-les-Pins (Loire-Atlantique), and while the mayor of Saint-Brevin is ultimately not responsible for this choice, he has enthusiastically welcomed it. This decision faced strong opposition from the far right, and supporters of the plan have faced death threats and acts of intimidation as the rhetoric became more and more violent from opponents. Because of the state’s plans to reuse an abandoned building within proximity of a school, opponents have been falsely depicting migrants as potential “criminals or child molesters” online as a way to spread fear about the decision. It is highly likely that the attack on the mayor is linked to this contentious atmosphere, and Morez has denounced the state’s insufficient response to the wave of threats from opponents.
This is not the first time that this specific migrant center has come under attack from the far right. There has been fierce opposition to the original center since it opened in Saint-Brevin in October 2016, and in October 2021, individuals could be heard firing off rounds in the vicinity of the center. More recently, on February 25, 2023, a protest took place where participants chanted racist slogans such as “La France aux Français” [France for the French] and carried flags for Reconquête, the party of Éric Zemmour, which aggressively pushes the “Great Replacement” conspiracy. Also present was Alain Escada, the leader of the Catholic Nationalist organization Civitas, Patrick Jardin (REC), father of a victim of the Bataclan massacre-turned anti-Muslim extremist, and “hooded individuals” presumably ready for street fighting (for more on Reconquête and Civitas, see GPAHE’s Country Report on France).
These hooded individuals turned out to be neo-Nazi street gangs from the Ouest Casual network, the “Rennes l’Oriflamme,” “Jeunesse Angevine,” and the “Ouest Cokins,” who have been regularly attending demonstrations in front of the town hall. The Ouest Casual network, whose groups extend across the country, has members who regularly attack migrants and leftists, as well as those who have military training from having fought in Ukraine. During previous demonstrations in Saint-Brevin, Ouest Casual members chased and attacked undocumented migrants. Given the proclivities of this group, it would not be out of their nature to have conducted an attack such as this on the mayor.
Targeting migrant centers is increasingly becoming a more common fixture of far-right protest in France, due in part to the advocacy of Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête party. In Callac (Côtes-d’Armor), large protests were organized several times alongside the neo-Pétainist Party de la France [Party of France] and other far right groups, and after repeatedly intimidating elected officials online, municipal officials decided to abandon the project. This initial success has only led these demonstrations to spread to other cities; Action Française [French Action] organized demonstrations in Beyssenac (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) and Bélâbre (Centre-Val de Loire), while the Reconquête coalition brought their intimidation efforts to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins (Pays de la Loire), Saint-Nazaire (Pays de la Loire), and Thiverval-Grignon (Île-de-France).
Since the attack on the mayor, the far-right media outlets that stoked the anger at the reception center, such as Breizh-Info that referred to the decision as “imposed immigration” and “forced promiscuity,” and sarcastically advocated for awarding Morez the “Legion of Honor” for welcoming the reception center, have been silent on the issue since he was nearly burned alive. The far right, however, will not be relenting anytime soon. Without denouncing the arson attack on the mayor, Zemmour is continuing to call for demonstrations against the center.
The Ouest Casual Nazis are also planning on returning for a demonstration in front of the town hall on April 29. If the project to build the reception center is abandoned due to harassment by these groups, it is likely that the broader far right will decide to bring violent protests to more cities and intimidate more asylum seekers using the legal routes afforded them by the law.
It is vital that all governments do more to protect the rights of migrants to legally apply for asylum status from violent third-party groups, protect local officials defending their rights to do so, and put an end to stepping over the line of legitimate protest. Migrants have a civil and human right to apply for asylum, and their right to do so should not be impeded by violent racists who see intimidation and spreading fear as a legitimate means of political participation.