July 5, 2023 - 11:15am

While France’s week of violent riots at first seems a retread of the banlieue uprising of 2005, in one respect it has displayed a new development, under-discussed in Anglophone media, which was absent a generation ago. Namely, the first evidence of a Right-wing counter-mobilisation against the rioters. In provincial cities like Lyon, Angers and Chambéry, groups of masked and hooded youths have appeared, dressed in black and armed with batons and pepper spray, to confront the rioters and the Left-wing demonstrators supporting them.

In Angers earlier this week, violent daytime clashes took place between Right-wing youths and Left-wing demonstrators in the city centre. Over successive evenings, there were further melees outside the Angers hub of the local Rassemblement Étudiant de Droite (RED), or Right-wing student rally, in opposition to rioters from the suburbs. RED is a rebranding of the revolutionary nationalist Alvarium centre — banned by France’s Interior Ministry in 2021 — and one of a network of Identitarian spaces operating in France, inspired by the “autonomous nationalist” examples of Italy’s postmodern-fascist CasaPound organisation and Ukraine’s Azov movement. 

In a press release published by CasaPound’s student wing, Blocco Studentesco, RED activists declared that “those who are indignant at patriots defending their premises against far-Left and suburban scum […] are manipulators and traitors to the nation. Fortunately, we can count on massive support from all over France but also from abroad. Messages of support are pouring in from everywhere.” Similarly, the far-Right French students’ union GUD expressed support for RED, declaring, “Faced with state repression and the barbarians of the cities: popular self-defence!” A judicial case has now been opened against RED following the violence.

In Lyon, for three nights around 50 masked militants, some armed with batons, paraded through the city centre, chanting “French people wake up: you are at home” and “Blue, White, Red: France for the French.” An initial gathering outside the city’s town hall was dispersed with police tear gas, with the local prefect Fabienne Buccio declaring that “an ultra-Right group attempted a communication operation this evening in front of the Town Hall of #Lyon. Thanks to the intervention of [the national police], their action was immediately prevented.” As the Left-wing magazine Marianne notes, “There followed an avalanche of reactions under his message — ‘unheard of at this level’ assures the prefecture — to reproach him for acting more effectively against ‘citizens exasperated by the riots’ than against the rioters.”

In Chambéry, meanwhile, there were skirmishes between Identitarian militants and rioters following a series of Right-wing marches, escorted by police, through the city centre. Telegram footage shows a petrol bomb being thrown against the Right-wingers, as well as an Identitarian lying wounded in the street after being hit in the head with a hammer. While France, unlike Britain, has long possessed a number of militant youth movements on the Right, the street mobilisation and increased visibility shown during the current riots is a new development. Already, new Telegram groups have sprung up to connect prospective new militants to local recruiters: in chats, activists approvingly refer to the ongoing disorder as a “red pill” for previously apolitical youth. 

Yet the French radical Right is also divided over the advisability of direct action in the current circumstances. The influential Identitarian video blogger Papacito released a message encouraging his followers to resist the urge to take part, insisting that they would merely be “defending the regime”, and insisting that “now you must leave the hordes of Huns to ransack the residences of those who voted for Emmanuel Macron”. What’s more, he suggested, “we’ve got to let the Republic go to the end of its logic.” 

With the violence now apparently dying down, the 2023 riots will mark another grim milestone in France’s growing angst over its future. Though barely reported beyond France, the Right-wing counter-mobilisation throws a new element into the country’s combustible mix.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.