“In 10 years, will we still be the seventh power in the world? Will we still be a sovereign nation or an auxiliary of the United States, a counter of China? Will we be a united nation or a fragmented one? Faced with these vital questions, there is no fatality. Neither the great replacement nor the great decline. I call on you to take action.” 
One term stood out on Sunday, April 10th, during Valérie Pécresse’s first major meeting for the 2022 presidential elections at the Zenith in Paris: the “great replacement”. These words were mentioned publicly by the candidate in front of thousands of partisans, who stand alongside the Republicans – the main political party of the right. According to the New York Times’ article about the emergence of a racist conspiracy theory in the mainstream, with coded assaults on immigrants and Muslims. This term is also frequently used by Éric Zemmour in this presidential campaign, a candidate of the “Reconquest” party characterized for his right-wing leaning beliefs. A name that takes us back to the “Reconquista” of the seventh century, when Spanish Catholic kingdoms aspired to regain the Iberian Peninsula, which they had lost to Muslims . The Muslims were forced to convert or go into exile after the reconquest of the Emirate of Granada by Isabella the Catholic and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1502. Indeed, for Eric Zemmour, elected officials, historians, and journalists would have delivered the nation to its deconstruction and the “great replacement” . To emphasize further, he could even be qualified as “extreme right” for his ideas, his provocations, and his convictions . Indeed, the expression “extreme right” was born in the 1820s and is used to describe a man who is angry that institutions and elites are causing decadence leading to chaos. As mentioned in The New York Times’ article, far-right ideas about immigration, such as the ethnic distinction of people within a population, coincide with the theory of the Great Replacement. Moreover, in recent years, the growing influence of this extreme party has not ceased to grow as more and more people are attracted by the rhetoric appeal and vision of the party . By correlation, more and more partisans are identified who support the theory of the Great Replacement because of the feeling of being “left behind”, of the anxiety of becoming a minority . Hence, I argue that this presidential campaign illustrates the increasingly pressing issue of conspiracy theories in politics, which arise mostly on the right of the political spectrum, therefore exacerbating France’s democratic erosion.
First, according to Miller, conspiracy theories are formed in an effort to explain events or practices by referring to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role. Conspiracy theories are political in nature, involving government plots, nefarious acts, propaganda, and cover-ups. So, given the nature of conspiracy theories, they are just as likely to be generated and spread horizontally as they are to be transmitted from the elites to the masses. Conspiracies confirm what people want to believe. People are known to seek the sense of the environment surrounding them. Humans assess, construct, and evaluate beliefs using biased cognitive processes. This process is called motivated reasoning which occurs through three separate mechanisms . First, there is the confirmation bias, also known as biased assimilation, which occurs when a person seeks out information that confirms their pre-existing ideas while avoiding incompatible information that would contradict them. Secondly, there is the disconfirmation bias which will happen when a person spends more time and effort criticizing and refuting opposing views. Finally, the attitude-congruence bias will occur when people who have a strong opinion on a topic tend to think that supportive arguments are more powerful than opposing ones. However, some people will tend to have a more pronounced influence on motivated reasoning and be more influenced by these conspiracies than others. On the one hand, some people lack trust in the government, its institutions, and its representatives. So, they will be most likely to endorse a conspiracy theory. On the other hand, there are the high knowledge conservatives and liberals that will be more likely to endorse conspiracies that impugn their political rivals than their low-knowledge counterparts. Moreover, Persily points out that the deliberate use of misinformation to influence attitudes on an issue or toward a candidate gives rise to propaganda that can overlap with satire, profit-seeking fake news, and conspiracy theories. He reinforces Miller’s idea by arguing that conspiracy theories and fake news can originate from any node on the diffuse party network and campaign organization such as official campaign organs, unofficially allied interest groups, friendly media organizations, websites, foreign actors, or even the candidate himself. Moreover, with the modernization and increased coverage of information technology such as social networks and media, these theories have intensified and accelerated. According to Muirhead and Rosenblum, “for the new conspiracies, all the energy is directed at repetition and affirmation” because the repetition validates conspiracies. Especially, with the spread of social media, the disinformation can reach a larger audience now, and be assimilated into more individuals’ beliefs. As a result, conspiracy theories may enhance the appeal of extremist narratives, by for example providing seductive “black and white” explanations of polarizing events, eroding the trust between people and governments, spreading hate speech, demolishing the respect for evidence, mobilizing violence, and even cause death .
If we take the example of the theory of the “great replacement”, we notice similarities with the comments and arguments held by the authors mentioned above. In fact, the theory takes its rise at the end of the 19th century by the father of French nationalism, the writer Maurice Barrès . On the scale of France, he speaks of a new population that imposes itself, triumphs, and “ruins our homeland”. At the time, he was referring to the Jews. Over the years, this idea has spread and taken root in far-right circles. In 2011, French nationalist author Renaud Camus argued that the white French population is being replaced by a non-white, non-French population in his book “Le Grand Remplacement.” This theory is based on the xenophobic idea that the white, Christian French population, is being intentionally replaced by non-white immigrants. In recent times, African populations and Muslims have been particularly singled out. Further, according to some, this theory is organized by global elites to support African colonization of Europe and dilute European national identities . On the other hand, for the proponents 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 or even extinct to the benefit of immigrants, who would impose their culture and religion . However, this theory is aptly named since it is only a “theory” and the figures given by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) show a completely different reality. In fact, over 6.8 million immigrants lived in France in 2020. This represents 10.2% of the overall population. Africa accounted for 46% of the total, with the rest coming from Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania. It’s a long way from complete African dominance. Unfortunately, a poll reveals that 67% of the French declare themselves “rather” or “strongly” worried by the phenomenon of the great replacement. Thus, it shows that the theory has been built around a myth, and misinformation since the data do not support the theory. This shows the large and disturbing proportion of people adhering to this theory leading to its success.
Like any successful conspiracy theory, the “big replacement” theory comes at the price of democracy’s health. For example, it gives rise to a feeling of anger and powerlessness that can sometimes lead to violence. As in the case of New Zealand, 51 people were killed after Brenton Tarrant – author of the 74-page manifesto on the “Great Replacement” – attacked two mosques . Therefore, political misinformation campaigns weaken our shared sense of truth by targeting individual voters and dragging them into a parallel dimension of conspiracy theories. Indeed, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that it erodes the effectiveness of political parties as instruments of democracy and undermines the credibility of knowledge-producing institutions, essential for democracy to work. Further to that, conspiracy theories and easy communication lead to the loss of information gatekeepers and exacerbate the polarization . Indeed, citizens exposed to such content are more likely to believe that the opposing party, in this case, a specific race, is illegitimate, subversive, or criminal and that its members pose an existential threat to the country. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain in their book How Democracies Die, hyperpolarization may lead to the rejection of democratic principles such as mutual toleration and forbearance. As a result, the public is less able and ready to engage in real political dialogue with the other side, hold their leaders responsible, and safeguard the democracy’s health through agreement and collaboration. Furthermore, the division and intolerance that disinformation operations foster can give rise to what Jennifer Mercieca refers to as “dangerous demagogues” like Éric Zemmour . Dangerous demagogues, according to Mercieca, are distinguished by their use of “weaponized communication,” which she defines as “the strategic use of communication as an instrumental tool and as an aggressive method to achieve acquiescence and evade accountability.” For example, propaganda, conspiracy theories, fake news, and disinformation are all instances of weaponized communication that dangerous demagogues use to gain compliance and avoid accountability, according to Mercieca. These methods enable such leaders in hiding the government’s activities, embolden their followers, and persuading the public that resistance is futile. In other words, disinformation campaigns hinder the ability of the people to hold their governments accountable and enable the potential authoritarian tendencies of their leaders.
Since the first round of the French presidential elections revealed a majority for Marine Le Pen (23.1%) and Emmanuel Macron (27.8%), crushing the other candidates along the way, with Éric Zemmour getting 7.1% of the votes and Valérie Pécresse 4.8%, one might think that the theory of the great replacement has fortunately not reached the ranks of the government . However, with the acceleration of the rise of the extreme right in recent years and its link to conspiracies, it is a great challenge facing democracy. Conspiracy theories might encourage radical action by inflaming division, undermining the democratic institutions that were developed to support and safeguard these citizens. To strengthen it, or at least slow down its erosion, authors like Nyhan, Reifler, and Berinsky present solutions to counter rumors, and make corrections to reduce misperceptions. However, solving the problem can only come after we collectively acknowledge its existence.
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