The 18-year-old who killed 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket Saturday was motivated by a racist ideology known as the “Great Replacement Theory.” In simple terms, it’s a conspiracy-theory-driven ideology, based on the idea that there’s a plot in the works to “replace” white Americans, as the theory goes, driven by immigration and higher birthrates among nonwhite populations.
The concept has spread widely in recent years, amplified by conservative media and — increasingly — articulated by politicians in the conservative mainstream. Its expressions have ranged from arguments for more restrictive immigration policies to horrific violence such as the terror of this past weekend.
Such racially driven, anti-immigrant thinking is hardly new, but in name at least, the Great Replacement Theory has a more recent history. And it’s not an American concept. It’s an import to this country — from France.
Origins of the term
In 2011, the French philosopher Renaud Camus published a book in which he claimed that native white Europeans were being “replaced” in their countries by nonwhite immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. White Europeans, he wrote, were “being reverse colonized by Black and Brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event.”
He called his book “Le Grand Remplacement” — French for “The Great Replacement.”
Camus had been influenced by another French author, Jean Raspail, whose 1973 novel, “The Camp of the Saints,” described the demise of white, Western society at the hands of mass migration from other parts of the world.
Later, Camus spoke publicly about “remigration” — a word that carries the same meaning in English and French, and refers to the idea that the much-feared “replacement” could be avoided by returning migrants to their countries of origin. Camus became an influential member of the European New Right party and an icon of its youth wing, Generation Identity. The latter was founded in 2003 in southern France as a white nativist group that stands for an ethnically pure population in Europe.
“The theory had existed in other forms,” Josh Lipowsky, senior research analyst for the nonprofit Counter Extremism Project, told Grid, “but [Camus’ book] really brought it to the forefront, and we saw several groups latching on to it.”
Today, Camus’ theory is central to several far-right parties on the continent, and his general idea — that an invasion of nonwhites risks existential damage to white-majority nations — has captured the imagination of politicians and the media in the U.S. as well.
Violent fringe — and political mainstream
If the Buffalo killer was inspired by the ideas of a French author, he wasn’t the first.
On March 15, 2019, a man in Christchurch, New Zealand, killed 51 people and injured 40 others in an attack during Friday prayers at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre. The Christchurch and Buffalo killers both livestreamed their terror; both left behind a racist diatribe; in both cases, their screeds included references to the Great Replacement Theory. The Christchurch attacker actually called his document “The Great Replacement.”
The Christchurch killer was said to have corresponded with Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who had left behind a screed of his own nearly eight years before. In his variant, brown-skinned Muslims were a threat to Norwegian society.
The perpetrators of such atrocities “copy what they think worked, and build on weaknesses,” Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor of religion at Queen’s University in Canada and an expert on extremism and political violence, told Grid. “The argument is the same — that there is a demographic emergency with white people in imminent danger of being overrun and outbred — and it’s up to them to wake up a sleeping white community to what they are facing.”
These are only the most violent expressions of the Great Replacement Theory. Beyond the killers, “Le Grand Remplacement” has been heard loud and clear in global political campaigns, in Europe in particular.
One week after the Christchurch attack, the Austrian offshoot of Generation Identity held a protest against “the Great Replacement,” calling for “remigration” and “de-Islamization” as solutions. Austrian investigators later learned that the Christchurch attacker had given money to right-wing political groups in Austria and France. He was alleged to have referenced the defeat of the right-wing politician Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential elections as a motivator for his attack.
Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had long advocated hard-line, nationalistic stances against Islam and the idea of the Great Replacement, but for years even they steered clear of framing their ideas in terms as racially fraught as Camus’ theory. Five years later, in this year’s presidential campaign in France, Marine Le Pen promoted the idea of the Great Replacement.
As the journalist Monique El-Faizy reported for Grid, “nowhere is the bleeding of extremism into the French mainstream more evident than with the so-called Great Replacement Theory.” The candidate for the mainstream right party, Valérie Pécresse, invoked the idea at a campaign rally, saying that France could still avoid a “great replacement” and calling on her supporters to “rise up” to stop it. A poll conducted last October found that 67 percent of the French public was worried that immigration could lead to the extinction of white Christians in the country.
The term has crept into political discourse in other countries: In April 2019, Heinz-Christian Strache, campaigning for the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria, endorsed actions to avoid a “great replacement.” Dutch politician Geert Wilders and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are adherents as well; Orban has referred to refugees in Europe as “Muslim invaders.” Far-right politicians in Germany and elsewhere have referred to “Eurabia” — with campaign posters pledging that “Europe will not become Eurabia.” In 2017, a Canadian far-right figure Lauren Southern released a video titled “The Great Replacement” and joined forces with “Defend Europe,” a project led by European white nationalists that has chartered boats to block the arrival of immigrants to European shores.
For many of these politicians, those immigrants — from Syria, Afghanistan and northern Africa — have been the catalyst for embracing the notion of “replacement.” Their arguments range from the supposed incompatibility of Muslims or Islam with democracy or the West, fears about the “Islamization” of Europe, or the general idea that their fellow whites are at risk.
The common thread: White majority life is under threat and must be saved. In other words, a “great replacement” looms.
A new name but an old idea
Technically, Camus can claim authorship of the term, but the “great replacement” is just a modern phrase for a strain of racism that has existed for centuries. Fears of racial mixing, fear of new arrivals — none of it is new. Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Third Reich predicated their actions on fears that Jewish people were a danger to the Aryan nation that they craved. One might say National Socialism was an ideology built, in a sense, on the Nazis’ own “replacement theory.”
The sad fact is that the concept still finds a foothold.
In a recent poll, the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that roughly 1 in 3 Americans believes an effort is underway to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gain.
When a group of families from Haiti was permitted to remain in the U.S. last September to pursue asylum claims (the majority of the Haitian arrivals had been returned), Fox News host Tucker Carlson offered his take under the banner, “Nothing About What’s Happening Is an Accident.” U.S. border policy, Carlson said, is designed to “change the racial mix of the country.” He went on to say that “this policy is called the ‘great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”
“Legacy Americans” — substitute “French” or other white-majority nationality, and the term might have been used by any number of European politicians. Or by Renaud Camus himself.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.