3 November 2016

    Such a beautiful mid-July morning it was, as I drove through the rolling valleys of the Lomagne in south-west France, heading for the tiny hilltop village of Plieux, population 142, lost in the Gers. Arriving a little early for my appointment with Renaud Camus in his magnificent château, built in 1340, which dominates the village, I stopped by the village church and read Le Figaro in the already glorious sun. It was two days after the attack in Nice in which 86 people celebrating Bastille Day had been mown down in a lorry by a Tunisian-born terrorist, the first of three days of national mourning.

    In the paper, the columnists were saying that France was now a country at war. Nowhere, though, was the name of the writer who has most clearly and offensively stated the case that France is a country undergoing ‘le grand remplacement’ — a replacement of its population. Renaud Camus is persona non grata in all mainstream media, dropped even by his own publishers.

    Yet Camus was once the darling of trendy, gay, leftist circles in Paris. Born in 1946 into a bourgeois family in the Auvergne — he has just turned 70 — he studied law in Paris and English at a non-university college at Oxford, then taught French literature in America for a number of years before returning to Paris. In the 1970s he lived the high life, meeting the likes of Roland Barthes, Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George. He was a diarist for the magazine Gai Pied and in 1978 published a journal, Tricks, giving cool, detailed accounts of his many one-night stands.

    In 1992, however, Renaud Camus left Paris for this rural military castle, probably the last of its kind ever built, and among the best preserved. Ringing the bell, I am greeted by his partner Pierre, who teaches history at a school in nearby Valence-d’Agen. He is tall, slim, very upright and courteously formal and escorts me up to Camus’s immense second-floor library, with its own stunning views all over the surrounding countryside.

    Formally dressed in a linen suit despite the heat, Camus is agile, bright-eyed and hyperactive, white-bearded but trim, humorous and immediately charming. I had anticipated an altogether more choleric man.

    He has written over a hundred books. He’s a graphomaniac, he says happily. He tweets incessantly, he posts on Flickr. He has written extensive modernist texts (Vaisseaux Brûlés, Eglogues) and beautifully produced guides to the houses of artists, Demeures de l’Esprit, including two volumes on Britain. Then there’s a beautiful little book about one of his dogs, Horla. He has written many political tracts — Revoltez-vous! and France: Suicide d’une Nation among them, as well as Le Grand Remplacement itself — and an immense ongoing journal in 20-odd volumes, which he adds to daily online.

    In France, he tells me, in clear albeit heavily accented English, people insist there’s an extraordinary difference between his earlier writings, ‘what they call the first period’, and what he does now, especially his political outrages. Not at all, he insists. It’s exactly the same thing, saying things that should be exposed as what they are, whether it’s sex or the replacement of peoples. ‘It’s because I could write a book like Tricks I could write a book like Le Grand Remplacement,’ he says.

    The key to his thinking, he says, is to be found in a chunky philosophical work, Du Sens, which he published in 2002, based on the Platonic dialogue Cratylus, in which Cratylus insists upon the reality and correctness of names, against Hermogenes who argues they are purely conventional. All his other books are satellites to Du Sens, says Camus. He insists people use their full and proper names (despising pseudonyms online), but more than that he wants everything called by its right name in every sphere: almost a matter of semantics, then. That, more than any actual policy ever likely to be implemented, seems to be his great political endeavour, the one that has got him into a good deal of trouble.

    Le grand remplacement, a phrase he devised in 2010, now has a wide circulation in French political and media discourse — but he remains peculiarly anonymous as its author. In 2014 he was fined €4,000 in a Paris court in a case brought by an anti-racist lobby group for having said that some Muslims were voyous (hooligans) — the armed wing of a group intent on conquering French territory and expelling the existing population from certain areas. His appeal in the case is ongoing.

    He vehemently denies he stigmatised all Muslims — but he does believe there is an unbroken line between petty crime and terrorism. ‘It goes to all the tragic events that are taking place. All the terrorists are known by the police, not for terrorist acts or for religious extremism, but by petty larceny and bank attacks, or even by very small things like attacking old ladies in suburban trains, or conflicts between neighbours,’ he says.

    Renaud Camus on an anti-immigration demo
    Renaud Camus on an anti-immigration demo

    Will the atrocity at Nice make any difference in France? ‘I certainly hope so but I don’t know,’ he says. ‘All the other ones before didn’t change anything and we are starting going to put little flowers and little bears — there is some silly childish celebration of le vivre ensemble [living together]. It is precisely le vivre ensemble that kills.’ Essentially, he believes that France’s best hope is encouraging remigration — the repatriation of immigrants, just as when the French left Algeria in 1962. He presents this as nothing less than a form of anti-colonialism. ‘I think, of course, we are much more colonised than we ever colonised ourselves,’ he says.

    And when did these ideas, that the historic population of the country he loves so much is now being replaced, first come to him? About 1996, he says. He was writing a guidebook about the department of the Hérault. Everybody was used to predominantly immigrant communities in the suburbs, or the quartiers, as he dismissively calls them — but he suddenly realised that in very old villages from the ninth or tenth century along the coast, the population had totally changed too. ‘This is when I began to write like that,’ he says.

    As well as writing polemics, Camus has formed two tiny political parties, laughing when I ask how many members they have. In 2012, he founded Le Parti de-l’Innocence, the party of no-harm, a slightly awkward neologism that has not caught on. The other is just called Non. ‘A no to the movement of people and of civilisation, no to the grand remplacement, saying just no to what is happening,’ he says. It’s a tiny monothematic movement, with two or three thousand paying members, some from the left as well as the right. He blithely admits he’s not the right man to lead it, being the opposite of a demagogue. ‘I’m not at all what is called for in the circumstances, just that I am convinced this thing should be done and since no one else is doing it, I feel I should,’ he says.

    In the last presidential election he ended up endorsing the Front National as the least worst option, losing many of his remaining liberal friends as a result. But he and the Front National are far from natural allies. He thinks Marine Le Pen is obsessed with Europe and Brussels, which is the wrong enemy, like fighting Vichy, instead of the Nazis. Unlike many of his allies, he was saddened by Brexit, loving Britain deeply, feeling himself European even more than French: ‘I think we should all face it together — I think it is a horrible weakening of the European idea that Britain should withdraw.’

    So in May, Renaud Camus announced his own candidature for the 2017 presidential election. His rather amazing manifesto was published in his journal, which runs from serious proposals, such as the repatriation of foreign-born criminals, to subjects like the right to silence, abolishing wind-farms, banning roadside ads, making sanctuaries of remaining unspoiled places, stopping the production of cars that can go faster than the speed limit, and recognising Israel, Palestine and a Greater Lebanon for Christians in the Middle East.

    If 2017 doesn’t go his way, he will stop, he says. It will be too late, anyway, by then, and he will be too old. There is so much he wants to do, so many buildings, paintings and landscapes he loves that he wants still to see. He travels, he says, like an 18th-century voyager, taking three days to get to Paris since he goes down every detour. At lunch in his vast, silent, first floor salon, I wonder if he knows the diaries of James Lees-Milne, which I love in much the same way I love Camus’s own. They seem equally driven by a profound wish to conserve the past, to preserve beauty, to resist change. Surprisingly, he doesn’t, although otherwise notably well-read in English literature, so I send him a selection.

    And indeed a week later in his journal is an entry about the book, talking about Lees-Milne’s work for the National Trust and his comic descriptions of the landowners he met: ‘Yet that all dismays me, and the better it is, the more it dismays me, because I cannot stop thinking about the suicide of this country I love so much, of the horrific stupidity to which it has descended, the collapse of this civilisation, in barely two generations. The English evicted through taxes and feeble-mindedness the class which constituted all their splendour, their solidity and charm… May the authors of this abominable crime be cursed.’ As I was saying, a true conservative.

    La Tour, Camus’ journal for 2015, is available from his website. David Sexton is literary editor of the London Evening Standard.

    Illustration by james weston lewis

    La Tour, Camus’ journal for 2015, is available from his website. David Sexton is literary editor of the London Evening Standard.