In October 2012, dozens of members of an obscure far-right group stormed the site of a mosque under construction in the western French city of Poitiers.
In an act of provocation that would draw outrage from across the political spectrum, the activists draped a huge banner from the roof, that read “732” – the year an invading Muslim army had been repelled not far from the city. If the reference was lost on observers, the group’s website made their demands explicit: “We do not want more immigration from outside Europe, or new mosque construction on French soil.”
The group was Génération Identitaire, or Generation Identity, and the mosque occupation was just the first of many attention-grabbing stunts that would become the movement’s stock-in-trade as it attempted to detoxify far-right politics and inject its extremist ideology into the political mainstream. In the subsequent years, the pan-European group’s activities would propel it to become one of the global far-right’s most influential movements, inspiring extremists – including terrorists – and reshaping far-right activism across the world, before eventually being banned and de-platformed in its country of origin earlier this year.
Generation Identity – the youth wing of the far-right Bloc Identitaire movement – had announced its existence to the world only a month before the mosque stunt, with an ominous black and white manifesto video titled “A declaration of war,” in which young French railed against the “total failure of coexistence and the forced mixing of races.”
Central to the group’s ideology was the racist conspiracy theory that Europe is undergoing a so-called “Great Replacement,” with white Europeans being supplanted by non-European immigrants and their children due to mass immigration, and declining European birth rates, typically as part of some sort of plot by globalist elites.
In response, the identitarians – who are committed to defending “the identity and culture of white Europeans” – proposed a radical solution, which they termed “remigration.”
“Generation Identity have this really pernicious idea that the way they would do this is essentially make life in these European countries so difficult for non-white people that they choose to leave – hence they will ‘remigrate’ away from Europe,” said Joe Mulhall, head of research at UK-based anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate.
French political scientist Marion Vaillant said the group’s intention was “to make life difficult for people that are not from your culture.” “So basically, forbidding the veil, for instance, forbidding the selling of halal food.”
Vaillant said the identitarians realised they needed to rebrand far-right ideology, and strip it of its poisonous associations, in order to draw young people to their movement. “They were trying to show their modernity and to differentiate themselves from the other far-right groups, especially in France, that were seen as …violent,” she said.
Gone were the shaven heads of the old skinhead far-right, in favour of a slicker, more media-friendly appearance (the Identitarians were frequently referred to in the press as “hipster fascists” – a label that only buoyed the movement, say experts.) So too was the traditional far-right emphasis on race, with the movement largely framing its rhetoric around the idea of defending European culture instead – principally from the supposed threat of Islam.
“One of the things that the identitarian movement has been really good at is it's repackaged quite extreme ideas in a way that looks much less extreme,” said Mulhall.
“You know, they don't sieg heil… they eschew the kind of imagery and language of much more extreme movements,” he said, adding that the group also modernised the aesthetics and presentation of far-right propaganda for the internet age.
“No longer was it kind of acceptable just to put some shoddy handwritten letter or some kind of 1970s-looking newspaper,” he said.
“But you can wear nice trainers and have a nice haircut, and still the fact of the matter is, these are fascistic ideas being repackaged.”
Another hallmark of Generation Identity’s tactics were its stunts, widely disseminated on social media, which helped build its brand, reach and influence, far beyond its relatively small membership.
Drawing inspiration from the direct action tactics of environmentalist groups like Greenpeace, the group graduated from banner drops to more confrontational and potentially dangerous stunts with its “Defend Europe” campaigns: chartering a boat to harass NGO rescue ships trying to save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, or donning uniforms and trekking into the Alps to try and stop migrants crossing from Italy into France.
“They have managed to find a means of activism which excites some young people … and they have managed to present themselves as a movement that gets things done,” said Mulhall.
“They raised the bar of what was expected of activism and they demanded that people were active as well.”
While the stunts had no meaningful impact on migration flows in Europe, they helped the group to build its status and influence, gain funding from supporters worldwide, and – most crucially – disseminate its ideology, in line with its “metapolitical” approach to activism.
“That’s about saying they will capture culture in society, and politics will happen downstream from that,” said Mulhall.
“Generation Identity don't stand in elections, for example. What they do is stunts that they think will in some cases shock people, but also normalise things like anti-Muslim rhetoric in the public space… With time, they change the culture that allows Islamophobia to become more normal and more acceptable, which allows them to change society.”
With the movement’s growing profile and avowedly pan-European ideology and ambition, Identitarian chapters swiftly sprung up across the Continent, finding a figurehead in Austrian leader Martin Sellner, a cleancut former neo-Nazi who became the movement’s most recognisable figure.
“Since he was 14, 15 years old, he was one of the right hands of the most important neo-Nazi in Austria, Gottfried Küssel,” said Natascha Strobl, an Austrian political scientist.
“There was this big fascination with [Sellner] – because he was young, he was charismatic, the media loved him. Everybody had a different perception of what right wing extremism should be, and he did not fit the bill.”
Sellner boosted the movement’s profile – particularly in the US, which became a major source of the group’s funding – not least through his relationship with American alt-right vlogger Brittany Pettibone. “They were the ‘golden couple’ of the US and the European right wing scene,” said Strobl.
But the group’s growing profile put them on the radar of the authorities, increasingly marking them out, despite their relatively small numbers (the group has only about 600 members in Germany, for example), as a threat to be taken seriously.
“It did make lots of people, especially from a security perspective, start to look at them more seriously and say, actually, hang on a second, this isn't just people dropping banners. This is a big far-right movement … doing pretty extreme activism,” said Mulhall.
And when a terrorist murdered 51-people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, it marked the beginning of the group’s downfall in earnest.
Brenton Tarrant was an Australian white supremacist who appeared to have been clearly influenced by identitarian ideology. His manifesto was titled “The Great Replacement,” and hewed closely to identitarian talking points about the threat of Islam, low birth rates, and the need to take action to defend the weakened West.
“It's very close to identitarian ideology,” said Strobl. “This whole idea of ‘we have to take action now… because it's too late in a year or two.’”
What’s more, it emerged Tarrant had actually donated money to the identitarians, and even exchanged some friendly emails with Sellner, discussing a potential meet-up if Tarrant ever visited Vienna. While Sellner said he had known nothing of Tarrant’s plans, for critics, the attacks highlighted the dangers of identitarian ideology, for all the group’s public renunciations of violence.
“Here we have this kind of perfect articulation of the danger of contemporary far-right movements,” said Mulhall. “Identitarians say ‘get active or you will be replaced’ – he decided to get active… It only took one person to shoot a lot of people in a mosque in Christchurch.”
In the wake of the Christchurch attacks and other scandals – including an undercover investigation that resulted in three French identitarians being convicted, including for incitement to terrorism and assault – the movement has faced a growing crackdown across Europe.
In Germany, the domestic intelligence agency classified the movement as a right-wing extremist threat against the country’s liberal democratic order in July 2019, allowing the state to place the group under advanced surveillance. And in March, the French government banned the group, with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin saying the movement incited “discrimination, hatred and violence.”
Experts say the ban – which effectively prevents the group’s members from operating and organising under the Generation Identity brand – will make their activism much more difficult.
“They need to kind of lay low, and maybe wait for a second moment,” said Vaillant.
But it’s unlikely to stop individual members from re-engaging in extremist politics in some other guise in the long term.
“It doesn't mean that those people have gone anywhere. They'll re-emerge in various different forms,” said Mulhall.
Moreover, even if the group’s founding chapter is effectively finished, the group leaves a lasting legacy in having reshaped far-right activism in the Internet age.
“One of the things they tried to do was to say: ‘Stop hiding.’ Lots of its key figures really put an emphasis on putting their faces out there, being open and saying we shouldn't be ashamed of this now,” said Mulhall.
“If you look at some of the rhetoric around things like the ‘Great Replacement’, those ideas have become increasingly mainstream in the last decade. Generation Identity has obviously played a role in that, especially amongst the radical right across Europe.”