May 19, 2023

IntelBrief: Arson Attack in France Signals the Rising Strength of the Far-Right in Europe

AP Photo/Lewis Joly

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In a national environment of increasingly violent and fiery discourse over immigration, the mayor of Saint-Brevin, France, resigned last week amidst death threats and an arson attack on his home after months of far-right protests over the town’s proposed asylum-seeker center.
  • The mayor’s resignation marks another success for far-right actors in France, who successfully pressured the small town of Callac in Brittany, along the northwestern French coast, to abandon a revitalization project to welcome refugees.
  • The protests in Saint-Brevin and Callac demonstrate the ability of far-right actors to propel local debates over immigration to the national stage, capitalizing on and propagating disinformation narratives about the criminality and economic and cultural threat allegedly posed by migrants and asylum seekers.
  • The resignation of the mayor of Saint-Brevin, and the debate more generally in France over immigration, signals broader trends pointing toward the strengthening of the far-right in Europe and their gaining electoral momentum.

In a national environment of increasingly violent and fiery discourse over immigration, the mayor of Saint-Brevin, France, resigned last week amidst death threats and an arson attack on his home, following months of far-right protests over the town’s proposed asylum-seeker center. The late March attack targeting Mayor Yannick Morez burned the front of his house and two cars, and is still under investigation; however, many believe that the arson attack and hostile demonstrations against the migrant center are linked. The mayor’s resignation was celebrated by those on the extreme far-right, with hundreds responding with champagne emojis on the Telegram channel “Canal Natio” over the announcement that the “collaborationist mayor of Saint-Brevin, threatened with death, has resigned.” The attack comes as Saint-Brevin has been besieged for months by far-right protests against plans to move an existing, state-run reception center for refugees to a repurposed, abandoned building close to a primary school. Opponents of the plan capitalized on the proposed center’s proximity to a school to promulgate false narratives online depicting migrants as criminals or pedophiles, seeking to stoke fear in the community over the proposal. Supporters of the plan, including the mayor, have faced death threats and other acts of harassment and intimidation as the atmosphere and rhetoric in Saint-Brevin have degenerated and become increasingly violent.

The original center in Saint-Brevin was one of several properties opened to rehouse people from the notorious “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France, which was demolished in 2016 and had become a symbol of the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe. Opposition to the asylum center stretches back to its advent. In 2016, before its opening, shots were fired at the planned center’s façade with bullets shattering the windows, in an attack that the French housing minister at the time called “an act of extreme racism.” Yet, the recent demonstrations in Saint Brevin, which included organizations ranging from Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party to smaller neo-fascist groups, have marked a clear escalation, reflecting a heightened atmosphere nationally over immigration. Locals in Saint-Brevin have insisted that majority of the protestors against the center were from out of town, with far-right groups fanning the rancor over the proposal. Although a range of far-right actors were represented, the demonstrations were largely organized by the Reconquête movement, founded by former far-right presidential candidate and proponent of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory Éric Zemmour.

The mayor’s resignation marks another success for Zemmour’s far-right Reconquête movement. In January, the town of Callac in northwestern France abandoned a project to welcome refugees after immense pressure from the far-right. The plan would have gradually welcomed refugees over ten years to revitalize the declining small town, emphasizing recruiting asylum seekers with sorely needed skills, such as nurses’ aides and dentists. Upon learning about the plan, the far-right, anti-immigrant Reconquête party organized a protest in September, warning that the proposed project would bring both physical and economic insecurity and prove a threat to the cultural makeup of the town. The town soon became an emblem of the national battle over immigration, with tensions coming to a head in November as rival demonstrations for and against the project were held on the same day. Some residents, including those on the city council, blamed misinformation about the criminality of refugees for aiding opposition to the plan and contributing to an overall climate of fear. The threats and harassment of local officials ultimately proved too much for the small town, and the mayor made the decision to cease the plans. The Reconquête party greeted the news as an “important symbolic victory against forced immigration.” Some on the city council, as well as French politicians on the left, have blamed the national government for allowing the situations in both Callac and Saint-Brevin to deteriorate.

The resignation of the mayor of Saint-Brevin, and the debate more broadly in France over immigration, signals broader trends of the strengthening of the far-right in Europe. Recent electoral successes by far-right populist parties in Austria and Finland, as well as major electoral successes in Sweden and Italy last year, demonstrate the gaining political momentum of the far-right movement on the continent. The victories indicate that far-right populist messaging continues to resonate with the European electorate and may potentially increase in the wake of several crises facing Europe, including climbing energy costs, demographic shifts, and rising migration. Particularly, significant increases in migrant flows to Europe could provide fodder for far-right narratives, as the number of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean route in the first four months of 2023 is far outpacing that of the previous year. According to data by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Italy alone has seen a 232 percent increase to date in refugees arriving by sea to the country compared with same period in 2022. In the past, far-right populists have proven astutely adept at harnessing and inflaming public anxiety over migration flows. The 2015 “refugee crisis” in the wake of the Syrian civil war provided a historic boon to the political endeavors of far-right populists throughout the continent, propelling in some cases, such as Germany, relatively new or obscure parties into the main opposition. The ability of the far-right in France to capitalize on anxieties over migration and refugees, with tangible results, may prove a harbinger of the broader European far-right’s exploitation of rising migration levels – efforts which may further bolster their political momentum.