Legacy of the ‘father’ of France’s modern extreme right
June 3rd, 2013
09:20 AM ET

Legacy of the ‘father’ of France’s modern extreme right

By James Shields, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: James Shields is professor of French politics and modern history at Aston University in the U.K. and the first winner of the American Political Science Association’s Stanley Hoffmann Award for his writing on French politics. The views expressed are his own.

As 4.00 pm struck on May 21, a man walked to the high altar in Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, placed a sealed letter on it, then killed himself with a single pistol shot to the head. Such was the final act of Dominique Venner, a 78-year-old former far-right activist and leading ideologue. Prior to this gruesomely theatrical suicide, carried out while some 1,500 visitors milled around the cathedral, Venner’s was not a name that would have resonated much in French public consciousness. But in his day, he was one of the most notorious opponents of the French Republic, its core values of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and its institutions.

Venner’s resume offers a tour through some of the most radical extreme right-wing political and intellectual circles in post-war France. The son of a militant pro-fascist father, he first came to prominence as an opponent of France’s return to democracy under the Fourth Republic and a diehard defender of French Algeria, engaging in violent activism and enlisting to fight as a volunteer paratrooper in the Algerian War. Having served a prison sentence for his role in the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) that waged a campaign of terror against President de Gaulle’s policy of Algerian self-determination, he went on to lead the ideological renewal of the French nationalist right in response to the new world order taking shape with decolonization and the Cold War in the 1960s.

Venner’s Europe-Action movement sought at that time to foster a “common European nationalism” in order to face down the demographic threat to Western Europe from developing country immigration and to stem the global advance of Communism. It called for racial segregation and an end to interbreeding (“genetic suicide”), eugenic measures to preserve “the white world,” and the mass repatriation of immigrants, especially those of North African origin; and it set the ideological framework for the later and more influential Nouvelle Droite in which Venner would again play an energetic part for a time. In the shift he inspired from violent activism to reasoned argument, from brawn to brain, lie grounds for a claim to be “the father of the modern extreme right.”

Though by the early 1970s he had relinquished his pretensions as a far-right maître à penser to concentrate on writing books about history, hunting and guns, Venner would espouse to the end his view of a Western civilization facing potentially fatal dangers. In his final blog entry, posted hours before his suicide, he warned that “the population of France and Europe” were sleepwalking into catastrophe, already being “replaced on a grand scale” by “Afro-Meghrebian immigration,” while France was slipping inexorably towards “control by Islamists” and “Sharia law.” Railing against the “infamous” legalization of same-sex marriage in France, he called for “new, spectacular and symbolic actions to wake us from our slumber” – with his own carefully staged suicide set to lead by example.

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The wider lessons to be drawn from this are not about an elderly man with a poor health prognosis seeking to give his end some resonant meaning. They are about the manner in which one of the most virulent opponents of the French Republic and its universalist values should be publicly designated – as newspapers and news sites announced the death of the “essayist,” “historian,” “writer” and “intellectual” Dominique Venner, while Agence France Presse lauded him as a “respected theorist” of the far right.

The fact is that France recognizes its intellectuals first and foremost as intellectuals, whichever position they occupy on the political spectrum; and the intellectuel engagé continues to have an especially strong claim to recognition. Witness the award by the Académie Française of its Prix de l’Essai to Alain de Benoist, founder of the Nouvelle Droite and tireless critic of the egalitarianism underpinning the French Republic; or the award again by the Académie Française of a string of prizes, including its Grand Prix de Littérature, to the controversial far-right ideologue Jean Raspail; or the award by the same Académie Française of its Prix Broquette-Gonin to Venner himself for his History of the Red Army, a work judged “apt to inspire a love of truth, beauty and goodness.”

Such plaudits from France’s most august learned body continue a long tradition of honoring intellectuals for the rigor and elegance of their writing regardless of political persuasion. They are also a reminder of a very particular French literary culture to which far-right authors have made a major contribution. Venner’s anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, xenophobic worldview had deep roots in the long history of France going back to the counter-Enlightenment and counter-Revolution, foreshadowed by thinkers from Louis de Bonald to Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès. These were “fathers” of an older French extreme right; but they were also emblematic figures of France’s intellectual establishment and acclaimed members of the Académie Française.

All of this makes it easier to understand how a man like Dominique Venner should be classed in France as a distinguished littérateur while abstracting away the substance of so much of what he represented politically. It helps us understand, too, how the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, though eager to cut a respectable political figure, should feel at ease in expressing her “unreserved respect” for Venner and seeing his “eminently political” final act as “a wake-up call to the people of France.” Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, would go further in likening Venner’s end to that of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a prominent pro-fascist writer who also found himself on the wrong side of history and committed suicide as the liberation of France neared completion in 1945.

Venner made his name in the febrile early days of the Fifth Republic, when threats of a coup d’état – in which he conspired – were real. He lived to see six presidents succeed the Republic’s founder, de Gaulle, and to witness a period of unusually sustained institutional stability under a regime he set out to bring down. But his parting shot made clear the remarkable permanence, over more than half a century, of his ideas, his anxieties and his implacable opposition to the founding principles of the Republic – with a violence turned ultimately towards no-one but himself.

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Topics: France • Politics

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    Jean Marie Le Pen, although a French right-winger, did have a lot of good ideas for France such as, returning to the French franc and pulling out of the EU. In fact, he'd do a far better job of governing France than the current leaders are doing. Today, France is currently languishing in a severe depression along with the rest of Europe!

    June 3, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  2. rightospeak

    It is very easy to figure out, even if you are mentally challenged ,what end of political spectrum the author of this article represents. Obviously ,he is a brainwashed Leftist with Globalist Agenda that is failing to realize what is actually taking place , not only in France, but in many countries. Due to excesses of the Left and the Globalist agenda creating misery the people are moving to the Right and if things do not change drastically there will be a revolution as the German banker pointed out recently. He is seeing the same thing that I am seeing- a very angry young populace with no future. Unfortunately, the international bankers run the show just like in the previous depression they orchestrated to rob the people and have no heart, only greed . History repeats itself and I hope that James has a place to run to in case of an angry mob.

    June 3, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Reply
    • Karl

      Wrong, rightospeak. The Globalists are not left-wing at all, but a bunch of Washington backed, international right-wingers who want to run everything under the sun, no matter who suffers in the process!

      June 4, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    In the final entry in his blog, dated the day of his death, he wrote about the failure of peaceful mass protests to prevent the passage of the marriage law and talked of "new, spectacular and symbolic gestures to wake up the sleep walkers and shake the anaesthetised consciousness". Perhaps this had triggered him to show his displeasure.

    June 4, 2013 at 10:52 am | Reply
  4. Chris

    Interesting background article on the French Right.
    I am just glad he decided to shoot hilmself, rather than killing anybody else.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:27 am | Reply

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