They Wanted To Be A Better Class Of White Nationalists. They Claimed This Man As Their Father.


Posted on: December 27, 2017

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PARIS — The man the alt-right claims as its spiritual father is a 74-year-old who lives with four cats in a Paris apartment around the corner from a Creole restaurant, a West African clothing store, and a Peruvian supermarket.

His name is Alain de Benoist, and he has published more than 100 books in his nearly 60-year writing career that encompass topics from anthropology to paganism. As the leader of a movement begun in the 1960s known as the “New Right,” he won one of France’s most prestigious intellectual prizes, was a columnist for several of its leading newspapers, and helped build the canon of fascist and radical writers familiar to political players ranging from Richard Spencer to Steve Bannon.

His core arguments are at the heart of many nationalist movements around the world, echoed even by those who do not know his name. His work helped give an aura of respectability to the notion that European “identity” needs to be defended against erasure by immigration, global trade, multinational institutions, and left-wing multiculturalism.

Today, de Benoist generally avoids social media and remains very much a man of the printed page. His Paris apartment is a refuge from the country home where he keeps a personal library of more than 200,000 volumes, a collection so vast he says it has become a burden. His study houses an art collection that includes a modernist portrait of de Benoist with his face encased in what appears to be a mask of metal. A poster for a talk he once gave in Turkey hangs on the bathroom wall, opposite a poster featuring different breeds of cats.

“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons.”

He now sees himself as more left than right and says he would have voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US election. (His first choice in the French election was the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.) He rejects any link between his New Right and the alt-right that supported Donald Trump.

“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons,” he said.

De Benoist’s views have changed a lot over his career, and he has written so extensively and in such dense prose that it can be hard to figure out what he believes today. (For English speakers, his challenge is complicated further by how little of his work has been translated.) He’s denounced racism but opposes integration. He rejects demands that immigrants assimilate or “remigrate” but laments “sometimes-brutal” changes they bring to European communities. He says identities change over time but wants them to be "strong." He disavows the alt-right but collaborates with some of the most prominent people associated with the movement.

Over the course of an afternoon, he grew frustrated with questions about how his ideas link to today’s politics, saying, “You treat the New Right as a political subject, but for us it is an intellectual subject.”

It wasn’t the far right that brought de Benoist’s writings to the United States. A left-wing journal called Telos, which was drawn to de Benoist’s critique of US foreign policy, first published his work in 1990s. Telos translated his Manifesto for a European Renaissance in 1999, in which he laid out a philosophy that has become known as “ethnopluralism” — arguing that all ethnic groups have a common interest in defending their “right to difference” and opposing all forces that threaten to erase boundaries between “strong identities.”

Whatever his intentions, this argument caught the eye of a new generation of white nationalists, in whose hands ethnopluralism became a kind of upside-down multiculturalism. They were not white supremacists, they claimed, but they believed that everyone was better off in a world where ethnicities were separate but — at least theoretically — equal.

De Benoist came of age following the war over independence for Algeria, which sparked a debate about whether Muslims could ever really be French, and whether France had made itself vulnerable by inviting them in.

After 130 years of French rule, Algeria had increasingly become part of the French republic, and Muslims increasingly a part of France. Algeria’s split from France in 1962 sparked tensions about whether French values could transcend differences of race, ethnicity, and religion. And the hundreds of thousands of Algerian residents — both ethnic Europeans and Muslims — who moved to France in its aftermath fueled a bitter debate over who could truly be French.

The New Right began as a cadre of young men once aligned with Nazis and fascists who believed these questions were life-and-death for the future of Europe. But they broke from the far right in the late ’60s, reinventing themselves as intellectuals, drawing on both the right and the left as they worked their way into mainstream debate.

It’s no accident that ideas de Benoist first formulated in France in the mid-20th century are now upending the politics of the 21st. And it is perhaps inevitable that the people laying claim to de Benoist’s legacy are dragging him back into the kind of far-right world he tried to escape.

Alain de Benoist in his office in Paris.

Pierre Terdjman for BuzzFeed News

De Benoist was born in the Loire Valley west of Paris in 1943, when France was under Nazi occupation. His parents moved him to Paris as a child, where he attended elite prep schools before entering the Sorbonne, one of France’s most prestigious universities.

He began his writing career at just 17, publishing a couple articles with an editor, Henry Coston, who’d been in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. Coston had been a leader of the Association of Anti-Jewish Journalists during the German occupation and published works like the pro-concentration camp pamphlet I Hate You. De Benoist said he was not aware of Coston’s anti-Semitism — he met him because he was friends with Coston’s daughter — and thought of Coston as someone who “mainly wrote about economics and banks.”

De Benoist calls his brief work with Coston a “footnote” in his history; the Algerian War was the conflict that defined his early career.

He entered politics in the early ‘60s as a leader of a group called the Federation of Nationalist Students. That group lent support to something called the Secret Army Organization (OAS), which united former soldiers, fascists, and champions of the French empire in a desperate campaign to block Algerian independence. As independence became increasingly inevitable, the OAS unleashed a terrorist group that killed almost 2,000 people and nearly assassinated the president of France.

De Benoist became close with an OAS member named Dominique Venner, who in 1963 helped launch a magazine with De Benoist as part of the team. Europe-Action became a key voice on the right trying to define what it now meant to be French.

Before the war, France had gone further than nearly any other European country in making colonial residents full citizens, according to historian Todd Shepard. Algeria elected 55 Muslims to the Parliament, including a vice president of the National Assembly. The leader of the Senate — and the first in line of succession to the president — was a black man from Guiana. France had also taken special steps to erase differences between European and local communities in Algeria, including affirmative action for Muslims in government jobs and a campaign to help Muslims “modernize” by casting off the veil.

But France’s rule was brutal, using torture, assassination, and collective punishment to crush calls for independence — tactics that made France a global symbol of the evils of colonialism. Even many in France embraced the cause of Algerian independence because they’d come to believe keeping the territory betrayed France’s egalitarian values.

Author Dominique Venner in France in August 1993.

Marc Gantier / Getty Images

The right took a different lesson, Shepard said in an interview. For people like Venner, the war proved that it was foolish to include “Arabs” in a European country, and that France was too weak to defend itself from the countries now rising in the ashes of France’s former empire. And with nearly 1 million people moving to France from Algeria in the war’s aftermath, they believed the question of identity would determine if France — or Europe — could endure.

“France and Europe must accomplish their nationalist revolution in order to survive,” Venner wrote from prison in a manifesto that cited Lenin, Hitler, and Mao as models. Force alone was not enough to accomplish this, he argued. The right must also win the battle of ideas, formulating a “new doctrine” to be “a rudder for thought and action.”

In this moment of crisis, Venner and de Benoist’s Europe-Action called for the West to unite as “the community of white people.”

Instead of the kind of nationalism that had led Europeans to fight against one another, de Benoist argued that they should unite around race.

“Race constitutes the only real unit which encompasses individual variations,” de Benoist wrote under a pseudonym in 1966. “The objective study of history shows that only the European race (white race, caucasoid) has continued to progress since it appeared on the rising path of the evolution of the living, contrary to races stagnant in their development, hence in virtual recession.”

And so he endorsed the kind of racial science that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. “Replace natural selection,” he recommended, “with a careful communitarian eugenics policy aiming to reduce the flawed elements and the flaws themselves.”

De Benoist now disavows this essay and other work from these years, saying he “said a lot of stupid things before” growing disappointed “not only with the radical right, but also with politics.”

“For me, my intellectual life started in 1967, in 1968,” de Benoist said. “This is where I completely changed.”

In reality, the journal he started around that time published continued to write about “biological realism” for many years after. But during this period, he joined with former Europe-Action and Federation of Nationalist Students colleagues to form the New Right, which would gradually stop emphasizing a racial hierarchy and instead focus on “identity” and “human diversity” as social goods that must be carefully preserved from homogenization.

De Benoist went on to develop a philosophy that draws on — and challenges — both the right and the left. But his work’s key preoccupations would echo Venner’s revolutionary manifesto for the rest of his career: the beliefs that politics can be reshaped through the spread of ideas, that Europe needs to return to its cultural roots, and that identities must be forcefully defended from erasure.

He also dined once a year with Venner, de Benoist said, until his death in 2013. Venner died still trying to shock Europe into a nationalist revival. He shot himself in Notre Dame Cathedral, a gesture he said was intended to awaken “French and European memory of our identity” before France falls “into the hands of the Islamists.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen leads the annual demonstration of the political party he founded, the National Front.

Yves Forestier / Getty Images

Like the alt-right, de Benoist’s New Right wanted to craft a new right-wing ideology to break into a debate they believed was controlled by the left.

In some ways, de Benoist was very much in step with his French generation in rebelling against authority. In May 1968, left-wing student protests at Paris’s universities sparked a political uprising that transformed France. Clashes between students and police in the streets of Paris were followed by a nationwide general strike, which brought the country’s economy to a halt for two weeks and ultimately forced President Charles de Gaulle into retirement.

De Benoist was in Paris for most of May and “shared the enthusiasm of ’68,” he said, adding, “I didn’t share the reaction of the rightist people who said ‘this is horrible and anarchist.’” He even dropped out of university in 1965, he said, believing getting his degree would be “some kind of collaboration with the system.”

He admired the tactics of the left, and it inspired him and other former far-right activists to undertake a long-term battle of ideas waged through a new think tank.

They called this project “metapolitics,” borrowing a term from the communist thinker Antonio Gramsci. They called themselves as the Group for Research and Study of European Civilization, or GRECE.

They were kind of a group of right-wing hippies. They organized solstice parties and sold spiritualist trinkets in their magazines. They declared themselves pagan because “the European peoples must draw from the origins of their spiritual identity.” The group, which was nearly all men, also embraced an ethic of free love in which “wife swapping” was common, former members said.

Whenever white nationalists today claim not to be racists — just people who believe that everyone is better off living with their own kind — they are invoking this framework.

At one point, de Benoist even came to the defense of an author who celebrated pedophilia, writing, “Can one not have the right to prefer to stroke the hips of high school girls[?] … It seems to me, according to my scale of personal values, that it is more ‘scandalous’ to watch TV shows, to play the lottery, than to have a passion for fresh buttocks, nascent emotions and burgeoning breasts.”

De Benoist’s biggest enemy became liberal capitalism, which he saw as an all-consuming force bent on assimilating the whole world into a universal market.

But de Benoist’s writings from this period often stood the logic of the left on its head: Egalitarianism was the true racism because it sought to erase difference from the world. Democracy was the true totalitarianism because it insisted undemocratic systems were illegitimate. Individualism was robbing people of their identities because it weakened community bonds.

GRECE advanced its ideas through seminars, conferences, and an annual “summer school” that covered topics from the Italian fascist writer Julius Evola to neo-fascist alliances with postcolonial movements. The group had as many as 2,000 members by the late ’70s who organized local clubs around France, according to historian Anne-Marie Duranton-Cabrol. Outside of Paris, they were strongest in Mediterranean towns where the pieds noirs, the ethnic-French community who’d lived in Algeria for generations and militantly opposed independence, had settled.

The group’s journals, Nouvelle École and Éléments, did not initially sound that different from Europe-Action, and a lot of the same writers — including Dominique Venner — were early contributors. But by the mid-’70s, de Benoist had developed a new rhetoric of identity that challenged the left on its own terms.

De Benoist in France in January 1995.

Louis Monier / Getty Images

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