Previously confined to far-right circles, the "great replacement" theory is taking hold more widely in political discourse. For the first time, the term has been used by a Republican right-wing presidential candidate, Valérie Pécresse.
What the politicians have said:
- "The 'great replacement' affects all of France," Éric Zemmour on French radio station Europe 1, January 6.
- “Nothing is written, whether it’s loss of economic status, or the 'great replacement',” Valérie Pécresse on February 13 during her first big campaign rally in Paris, February 13.
What are they talking about?
The 'great replacement' theory appeared at the end of the 19th century. The father of French nationalism, the writer Maurice Barrès, spoke about a new population that would take over, triumph and "ruin our homeland." At the time, he was referring to the Jews.
Over the years, this idea has spread and taken root in extreme right-wing circles. In 2011, French nationalist author Renaud Camus – convicted three years later for "inciting hatred and violence against a group of people because of their religion" – popularized the expression in his book 'Le grand remplacement'.
The theory is based on the xenophobic idea that the French white Christian population is being intentionally replaced by nonwhite immigrants. In recent times, African populations and Muslims in particular have been singled out. Moreover, according to the theory, the 'great replacement' would be organized by global elites in order to support an African colonization of Europe and to dilute European national identities.
For advocates of this theory, these migratory flows would contribute to the demographic decline of the West. The white and Christian populations would eventually become a minority, to the benefit of the immigrants, who would impose their culture and their religion.
Why this is not true
According to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), about 6.8 million immigrants were living in France in 2020. This equates to 10.2% of the total population. 46% of these were from Africa, the rest being mainly of European, Asian, American and Oceania origin. This is a long way from total African domination.
Defenders of this theory believe that the 'replacement' of the white population by immigrants can be explained, in part, by a higher birth rate among children born to foreign parents. But here again, studies show the opposite.
"There is only a difference of a child and a half between immigrant women and native French women," François Héran, a professor at the Collège de France, where he holds the chair of migration and society, told InfoMigrants. "One in six births is to an immigrant woman, which obviously has little impact on the national fertility rate."
Over successive generations, the daughters of immigrants align their fertility behavior with that of native-born women. This means that second generation immigrants have the same number of children as native French women. "The proponents of this thesis do not take into account this process of convergence, which makes their diagnosis completely biased," says Héran.
Finally, as shown by a 2020 study by France stratégie, immigration is unevenly distributed over the national territory. The proportion of immigrant children is higher in some municipalities, such as in Ile-de-France, unlike in Brittany. "Extremists always take examples from the most concentrated areas, but in some French regions there are few, if any, immigrants," said Héran.
For François Gemmene, a researcher in political science and a specialist in migration at the University of Liege, the transformation of the French population is in any case inevitable. Writing on Twitter he said, "By nature, all European populations have always been 'replaced' and have mixed over time. None has remained completely fixed, otherwise France would still be called Gaul."