Ten years ago, French historian Dominique Venner entered the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, approached the high altar and killed himself with a pistol shot to the head. He was 78 years old and described himself in a suicide note as "healthy in body and mind."
Both the act of suicide and the place where it was done were blatantly sacrilegious choices for a Catholic but Venner was not a Christian believer. His was not even the first suicide by gun at the famed site. In 1931, a well-known Mexican intellectual, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, shot herself in the same place over an unhappy love affair. Venner had nothing against the cathedral, choosing it on May 21, 2013 because it was a highly symbolic place that he "respected and admired, which was built by the genius of my ancestors on older places of worship, recalling our immemorial origins." It was, of course, one of the most visited, emblematic sites in Paris.
Venner was a distinguished military historian but he was always been a man of the political right, many, including Le Monde, would say that he was a man of the far-right even though he was not particularly interested in partisan politics per se. He abandoned political action in the 1960s, believing that politics was downstream from culture. Venner's influence on the genesis of what would be called the French Nouvelle Droite ("New Right") was profound. A New Yorker piece after his suicide called him an "extreme right-wing nationalist." He had fought in France's colonial war in Algeria and then was a low-ranking member of the notorious/venerated OAS (the anti-de Gaulle Secret Army Organization) because of which he was imprisoned for 18 months. His suicide though was a political act, suicide as a protest against what he saw as the suicide of the West.
Venner's flamboyant death, something like a latter day Mishima, made him an icon in some sectors of the right and far-right, especially that sector which sees itself as post-Christian or neo-pagan. Being neither, I am less interested in the man – most of whose voluminous work is, unfortunately, available only in French – than I am in what he was protesting against then, with such fatal conviction, and how such causes look today. A decade later and with constant, feverish talk in the West about the polarizing and authoritarian ideologies of both the left and the right, how different is our world from the one where Venner felt compelled to take such drastic action a short decade ago?
Venner's suicide broadly concerned three hot-button interconnected issues at the time which are – not so surprisingly – still topical and still incendiary: the family, immigration, and identity. In all three areas, the perceived maladies or wrongs that he decried seem much more developed than they were when they drove him to death.
Although some still link his death to opposition to same-sex marriage, an issue which was very much in the news in May 2013 (it had just passed the previous month in the French National Assembly by a vote of 331 to 225), Venner's opposition was broader than that. It is not mentioned at all in his suicide note which does talk of "invasive individual desires that destroy our anchors of identity and especially the family, the intimate basis of our multi-millennial civilization." Public support for same-sex marriage in France has only increased over time since it was legalized and, as in most places in the West, it is not really much of an issue anymore.
His biggest concern seems to have been the absence of procreation, of native French babies being born, part of the demographic struggle which is connected to his other bete noire, what he dubs "Afro-Maghrebi immigration" accelerated by "politicians and governments of all parties (except the National Front) as well as employers and the Church" for the past 40 years.
Unlike same-sex marriage, immigration is still very much an issue in France and throughout the West and seems poised to remain so for years to come combining as it does concerns about declining fertility rates in the West, aging populations, and tremendous pressure coming from Africa and the Middle East seeking to overwhelm Europe's borders.
Venner vociferously criticized Muslim immigration to France and was often called an Islamophobe. But in some ways, he seems a prophet, writing before the rise of ISIS, before the massacres in Bataclan in 2015 and in Nice in 2016, before the 2015 slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, before the 2016 murder of a Catholic priest saying Mass by Muslim youth in Normandy, before the 2020 beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty. His alarm that France would one day fall into the hands of Islamists even preceded Michel Houellebecq's 2015 novel on the same subject.
The issue has not gone away and has not been resolved. Large majorities of the French people repeatedly say in polls that "there are too many immigrants in France." According to a 2017 Pew Research study of Islam in Europe, the percentage of Muslims in France is the highest of all those countries polled – 8.8 percent and even with zero future immigration, it is expected to rise to 12.7 percent by 2050. And no one expects zero future immigration.
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The worst-case scenario is the French assimilationist model, such as it is, breaking down, and being replaced by a Gallic variation of the American style grievance culture. In such a dire scenario, ethnic and religious grievance joins political polarization and economic stagnation to create a combustible mixture.
If same-sex marriage is a long-gone controversy and immigration is a constant everyday challenge that eludes easy resolutions, Venner's concerns about identity are probably even more important than before and indeed may be the dominant issue of the future. For Venner this was about needing to recover and fortify an ancient European identity, predating Christianity, looking back to Homer and his epics. He railed at the need to shake people out of their somnolence so that they could "awaken the memory of our origins."
He saw it very much in terms of European identity versus a rival non-European identity coming from outside. This seems almost painfully naïve. Native populations being replaced by immigrant populations is not, as some have dubbed it, a "racist conspiracy theory." The composition of populations on national or local levels changes all the time, sometimes coincidentally and other times intentionally. One need only ask Native Americans or Middle East Christians and Jews about being forced out and overwhelmed by others. I came to Miami as a refugee baby and by the time I was an adult, Cuban-Americans had taken political power through their weight at the ballot box. "Great replacements" happen all the time and with globalization, they have become easier and faster than ever. Such is the way of the world.
But Venner's concern about identity and replacement looks naïve because our concerns now are not, or not only, about being American or European but about what it means to be a man or a woman, or even what it is to be human, what it means to be distinctive or free – a challenge deeper and more basic than quarrels about ethnicity and history.
Modern youth in the West are increasingly depressed, medicated, and empty. The conspiracy is not so much about outsiders destroying our identities but rather our own destruction of our identities under the hammer-like assaults of rapid technological change and economic disruption while modernity dissolves anything that gives meaning. Meanwhile our Western elites seem drunk on ever more fanciful flights of gender and race.
Some experts believe that startling advances in Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) will free us, others that it will enslave us, and still others that it will drive us mad. The battle for identity is the great battle to come. Venner had prescient, vague inklings of this war to come, but it was one far beyond even his vivid capacity to imagine.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
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