Just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, a 78-year-old man made his way to the altar of the Notre Dame cathedral in the center of Paris. After laying a sealed envelope on the altar, he pulled out a small Belgian-made pistol, pointed it into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. The title typed on the sheet of paper inside the envelope read: “Declaration of Dominique Venner: reasons for a voluntary death.”
A veteran of French neofascist groups, Venner was a longtime militant of the far right who had gradually eased into a new life as a respected historian, known for his expertise on weapons and hunting. But his suicide manifesto, as well as a blog post he published earlier that morning, took him directly back to the dark themes that drove his life: the “great replacement of the people of France” and the prospect of France “falling into the hands of Islamists.” He praised an upcoming protest of France’s new law legalizing gay marriage, which he called “detestable.”
The virulent reaction of the French right to the gay marriage law has surprised some Americans who tend to picture France as a secular and sexually liberated society. Not only have the streets of Paris swelled with enormous and violent demonstrations, but gay-bashing incidents have dotted the country, including the savage beating of Wilfred de Bruijn in early April. Why would the backlash against gay rights be so militant—far more so than in the deeply religious United States—in France, where only 5 percent of the population attends church regularly?
While Venner chose the tensions surrounding mariage pour tous (marriage for all) as the stage for his dramatic exit, his act was less about gay marriage and more about an ideology with a long history in French politics and thought. It has roots in Catholic monarchism, long hostile to any sort of egalitarian politics. In the 20th century, it evolved through various political ideologies, from the fascism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime to the Islamophobic, anti-communist terrorism that marked France’s colonial war against Algeria in the 1950s. Through all those events, the French far right has told variations on a single story: the degradation of society through democracy, capitalism, and immigration, the heritage of white Europe being trampled. Only in the context of that virulently antimodern ideology can one understand the life and death of a figure like Venner in a country that Americans might imagine to be liberal and irreligious.
Venner’s political life began early, with his father’s membership in a party founded by the staunchly pro-Hitler Jacques Doriot. But Venner threw himself fully into politics after his return from the war in Algeria, joining the prominent fascist youth movement Jeune Nation. He was later part of the the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), a domestic terrorist group made up of far-right militants and military officers who visited brutal violence on Muslims in Algeria and France and attempted to overthrow the French government in 1961. Venner and countless other OAS militants ended up in the infamous Santé prison in Paris for their crimes against the state.
The war over Algerian independence was a formative experience for many on the contemporary far right and for France as a whole. It was a bloody national trauma of near unimaginable proportions: torture of Algerians by the French military and by paramilitary terrorists; the defection of huge swaths of the French army; an attempted military coup d’état that nearly brought down the government; pervasive state suppression of free speech and the press; and multiple attempted assassinations of president Charles de Gaulle, who returned at the peak of the drama to cut Algeria loose and restore order. It was a time of chaos and absence of leadership that is difficult to imagine in France today and triggered intense political passions that drew in every French intellectual of the time. Your political positions could get you killed: in addition to the president, OAS terrorists bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s apartment twice for his support of the Algerian nationalists.
Algeria allowed the far right to regroup after the humiliating end of the Vichy regime, which had served as, as historian J.G. Shields puts it, a “laboratory” of extreme right-wing ideology, no doubt helped along by their close relationship with the Nazis. The Algeria conflict helped spread far-right politics to soldiers and officers who had served heroically in World War II and felt that the French government abandoned them in their colonial conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. It also further radicalized the already hysterically right-wing pieds-noirs, the French settlers in Algeria who, at the end of the bloody war, uprooted themselves from generations of history and moved en masse to metropolitan France. Though they successfully assimilated into French culture, they often supported the country’s emerging far-right party, the Front National.
The right’s rage at the outcome of the Algeria war echoes in Venner’s final blog post, in which he denounces “Afro-Maghrebian immigration” and “the great replacement of the population of France and Europe.” These are also veiled versions of the elitist, racist, social Darwinism that members of the Jeune Nation promulgated in their journals and manifestos, calling for a united Europe “founded on the common civilization and destiny of the white race.” Venner started several political groups based on European nationalism and rooted in the idea of ethnicity-based exceptionalism. His Europe-Action espoused a similar racialized ideology and united the remnants of the FEN, a white supremacist student group; the OAS; and handful unapologetic Nazi collaborators. These movements united a number of discordant strains—white supremacism, anti-communism, patriarchal morality, neo-pagan tribal religion—into a grand story about what must be done to save European culture from extermination. That explains their hostility to gay marriage: not because the Bible forbids it but because it’s a rejection of the religious heritage necessary for the flourishing of the European race.
How could someone with those political views become a respected historian, winning prestigious prizes for his books? Venner gradually moderated the tone of his political involvement, beginning after his release from prison in 1963. His political manifesto called for a new far right that would now operate within the law. He wrote on hunting and weapons, becoming known as a specialist in a field relatively isolated from his politics. The “Nouvelle Droite” (New Right), an intellectual movement he became associated with, toned down the racism and rebranded itself as an intellectual forum, mostly using euphemisms and heavily footnoted psuedo-academic language. But Venner and the Nouvelle Droite never for a second veered from their racialized supremacism. Not only is it present in Venner’s writings but even in his final blog post, in which he cited The Camp of the Saints, a fictional screed about the obliteration of Western culture by immigrants authored by the racist ideologue (and fellow Académie Française prize winner) Jean Raspail.
Venner played the idealized role of the French militant intellectual to the end, sounding soaring existentialist notes in his final writings. “It is by deciding, truly willing one’s destiny, that one conquers nothingness,” Venner said, citing the German philosopher Martin Heidegger but more accurately paraphrasing the philosophy of French existentialists like Sartre. But he had already explained, in the first 2013 issue of his current journal, La Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire: “To die is sometimes another way of existing.”