The social media network of the National Front’s presidential candidate says a lot about the far right ideas that underpin her policies.
With the first round of France's Presidential Election fast approaching, tracking polls show Independent Socialist Emmanuel Macron is only .2 percent ahead of the National Front's (FN) Marine Le Pen. And while Le Pen is predicted to lose after the final vote, second place is uncomfortably close for those who would be affected by the far-right matriarch's agenda.
Highlights from Le Pen's 144 Commitments include ending automatic citizenship for children of immigrants; taxing companies for hiring foreign nationals; decreasing immigration to 10,000 per year; amending the constitution to be pointedly anti-multicultural; and a vote on leaving the EU, colloquially known as Frexit. Le Pen insists that her nativist, anti-globalist platform is, as her slogan claims, "In the Name of the People." However, a survey of her online engagement reveals that, for Le Pen, "the people" are white supremacists.
Since taking over FN in 2011, Le Pen has been attempting "dédiabolisation," a policy of transforming the party's reputation from extreme to mainstream. Le Pen can only take dédiabolisation so far considering that FN was born in 1979 from the union of various far-right groups. The party's sole leader for 29 years was Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred and claiming that the Nazi occupation of France was not, "particularly inhumane."
While Le Pen gives lip service to making FN less racist, she continues to decry "anti-white racism," a term strikingly similar to the white supremacist mantra, "Anti-racist is anti-white." Le Pen says she wants to shed FN's connections to anti-semitism, yet she took five years to strip Jean-Marie of his honorary title of president-for-life, and only after he repeated a claim that Nazi gas chambers were a, "detail of the the War." Le Pen herself tried to diminish France's role in rounding up Jews for Nazis during German occupation. The result of dédiabolisation? The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights' annual survey has found that that FN's supporters have never stopped being racist, xenophobic, and anti-semitic.
Dédiabolisation plays out the same way on social media. Le Pen's Twitter primarily serves to make Le Pen's speeches and policies accessible to the general public, yet she's amassed 1.37 million followers (more than her two closest rivals combined). How? The Atlantic Council (AC) recently reported that Twitter bots and high volume accounts coordinate to buoy Le Pen's social media visibility. What the AC didn't report, however, was that many of the most active accounts profiled—@Messsmer, @AntreDuPatriote, @AudreyPatriote, @Grimmgrimm84—also Tweet about grand remplacement.
"Grand remplacement means the substitution of the white European Christian population, by non-white, non-European and mostly Muslim immigrants, in order to change the ethnic structure of the country," explains Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic and International Affairs, whose book Far-Right Politics in Europe was recently released by Harvard University Press. "Most of those who use the term think that this immigration policy was set on purpose by the liberal elites in order to weaken patriotism and ultimately make the white christians a minority on their own soil. So, this is the equivalent of 'white genocide.'"
Scrolling through #grandremplacement on Twitter, one will find people bemoaning the presence of non-white faces on the streets, in classrooms, and even in emojis. Le Pen's official Twitter account follows the aforementioned four racist accounts and hundreds more.
Using software known as LittleBird in late March, I surveyed all of the 4,185 accounts followed by Le Pen at that time. LittleBird works by creating networks based on numerous criteria, one of which is the use of hashtags. LittleBird then creates a list of influencers, which are the individuals in any given network who are followed by the greatest amount of people within the network. These are the most-connected nodes. Le Pen follows 180 #grandremplacement influencers with influence rankings between three and 817. At rank 13, for example, is the official Twitter of Sovereignty, Identity and Freedoms, a political party that's an ally to FN. At six is @Charlemagne1968, who identifies as #WR (white rights) and #altright in their bio. Le Pen follows them both.
Le Pen also follows many accounts who tweet about #grandremplacement but don't appear in LittleBird's influencer network, like @Paytonnv, whose bio contains the number 88 (a reference to Heil Hitler: H being the eighth letter of the alphabet), and the 14 words, which the Anti-Defamation League calls, "The most popular white supremacist slogan in the world." @Paytonnv does not follow Le Pen back.
Other prominent members of FN also follow #grandremplacement influencers, such as Nicolas Bay, (FN General Secretary), David Rachline (Le Pen's campaign manager), and Le Pen's niece Marion (an MP in France's National Assembly). Philippe Vardon, who Politico called a "top general" in Le Pen's social media campaign, has even Tweeted about grand remplacement. Le Pen and the FN's association with racist differs drastically from their electoral competitors. Emmanuel Macron follows zero #grandremplacement influencers and Francois Fillon, follows 20, but only two of which are in the top 100. Meanwhile, 66 percent of #grandremplacement influencers follow Le Pen, while only 25.7 percent follow Republican Francis Fillon, and 13.1 percent follow Macron.
"Her success is part of a broader movement advocating the end of globalization, free-market economics, and liberal values, to be replaced by nationalism, nativism and protectionism," says Camus. Le Pen has certainly enjoyed support from abroad, particularly in America. Andrew Anglin, editor of the white supremacist Daily Stormer, considers the French election, "one of the most significant events of 2017," thanks largely to Le Pen's plans for Frexit.
"The French need memes," Anglin observed, "And you all need to deliver them." As revealed by Buzzfeed, American Trump supporters, who also worked to create awareness of white genocide, have been coordinating to galvanize support for Le Pen online. LittleBird reveals that their efforts have been largely successful. American Trump supporters now make up top influencers for the hashtags #Francefirst, #world4marine, #makeFrancegreatagain, and #MFGA. Many of the top influencers in these networks also follow top #whitegenocide influencers.
The sentiment that inspires grand replacment isn't limited to Twitter. A movement known as génération identitaire (the French altright) has been taking its nationalism to the streets. They document their fasctivism (fascist activism) online and inspire similar groups across Europe. Their rise has coincided with the increased popularity of the fachosphère, a collection of far-right news sites that also cover grand remplacement. Meanwhile, France's National Human Rights Commission has reported a dramatic increase in anti-muslim hate crimes. It's possible, then, that in the event of a Le Pen win, attacks against minorities could continue to escalate, much like they did in the US and UK in the wake of Trump and Brexit.
I reached out to Le Pen's campaign to ask them about grand remplacement and the connection between that concept and their following on social media. They did not respond at the time of publication. However, Le Pen has addressed similar questions in the past. In a Nov 2014 interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, she said, "The concept of large remplacement presupposes an established plan. I do not participate in this complotist vision." But rejecting the conspiratorial nature of grand remplacement hasn't stopped her from crafting a policy that Camus believes would have similar devastating effects.
"Obviously, it will be 'illiberal democracy' at best. Everything will be done, that is in the capacity of state institutions, to make [immigrants' lives] so bad that the FN hopes they will leave. I want to point out to the fact that Jews like myself will not be able to enjoy the religious freedom we now have: No more kosher ritual slaughter, no more kippa on the street. It remains to be seen if dual citizenship with Israel will be allowed or banned. The Muslims are, however, the main target because 'fundamentalism,' unlike Jihadi Islam, is a very broad notion that can be used against almost every faction within observant Islam. Another threat is that closet racists will feel free to express their views and even resort to violence."
While Le Pen may reject the conspiratorial nature of grand remplacement, she can't reject its supporters. Dédiabolisation simply can't extend far enough to change Le Pen into someone else. And if it did, Le Pen would have way less Twitter followers, and less support in the polls.
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