The great replacement is a racist conspiracy theory that rests on the notion that immigrants intend to literally replace current populations in Western countries. The term was first coined by French author Renaud Camus (no relation to Albert Camus) as the title for a political treatise that made him an influential figure in French right-wing politics. According to Camus, “the great replacement (“grand remplacement” in French) is very simple, […] you have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people.” From his perspective, immigrants aren’t coming to France merely to seek a better life for any number of reasons – it’s an “invasion,” a “conquest.” Their having children in France is no innocent act, to Camus they are “colonizing.”

Birth of a bad idea

Camus’ ideas are far from new in France’s right-wing politics.

The 1973 novel Camp of the Saints, by Camus’ compatriot Jean Raspail, is a xenophobic dystopian novel that depicts the destruction of France through mass immigration from the Third World. Going back further, one could trace Raspail’s and Camus’ lineage to Maurice Barrès, the late-nineteenth century novelist who played a major role in shaping the anti-immigrant nativism that flourished in that era, which then morphed into conspiracy-laden antisemitism during the Dreyfus affair.

This cocktail of reactionary thought pervades extreme right-wing circles today. Camp of the Saints has gained a new audience, becoming a bestseller in 2011, around the same time as the publication of Camus’ The Great Replacement.

Birds of a feather, racism together

Camus’ idea now pervades right-wing circles across the Western world.

While kicking off his presidential campaign in France last year, candidate Éric Zemmour, founder of the far-right Recapture! party, stated that he was ready to address the “fears” that “haunt the French people,” namely the “great replacement due to the Islamification of France.” Marine Le Pen, a more established right-winger from the National Front party, flirted with this rhetoric before pleading ignorance after the Christchurch mass shooter referenced the “great replacement” in his manifesto.

In a 2019 interview she stated that she “[doesn’t] know this ‘great replacement’ theory,” but in 2011 she declared that the French government was engaged in a conspiracy to “replace the French people, pure and simple.”

Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy party has picked up where Le Pen left off, stating last year that Italian liberals have encouraged “the project of ethnic substitution of European citizens, desired by big capital and international speculators.” Notice how she, like Le Pen in 2011, gestures vaguely at the seat of power in her country as the source of this immigration – it is not any geopolitical force (war, climate change, economic desperation...) or any individual immigrant's desire that might explain this, it's the proverbial man behind the curtain.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has also taken on Meloni’s tactic of repackaging the great replacement with a new term: “The great European population exchange … a suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilisations – migrants.”

American MAGA Republican politicians Matt Gaetz and Elise Stefanik have claimed that the Democratic Party has conspired to grant illegal immigrants “amnesty,” enabling them to vote (not true) and thereby “overthrow our current electorate.” Part of Donald Trump’s accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election included frivolous claims that undocumented immigrants had voted.

Playing with fire

Most troubling is how great replacement theory has taken hold among violent extremists around the world.

The mass shooters in El Paso (2019), New Zealand (2019), Buffalo (2022), and Norway (2011) – over 160 dead between them – all claimed great replacement or adjacent ideas as the motive for their attacks.