PARIS — Until a couple of years ago, the “great replacement” — a racist conspiracy theory that white Christian populations are being intentionally replaced by nonwhite immigrants — was so toxic in France that even Marine Le Pen, the longtime leader of the country’s far right, pointedly refused to use it.
But in a presidential race that has widened the boundaries of political acceptability in France, Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the mainstream center-right party in the coming election, used the phrase over the weekend in a speech punctuated with coded attacks against immigrants and Muslims.
The use of the slogan — in what had been billed as the most important speech so far by Ms. Pécresse, a top rival of President Emmanuel Macron — has fueled intense criticism from both her opponents as well as allies within her party. It also underscored France’s further shift to the right, especially among middle-class voters, and the overwhelming influence of right-wing ideas and candidates in this campaign, political experts said.
Éric Zemmour, a far-right author, television pundit and now presidential candidate, was the leading figure to popularize the concept in France in the past decade — describing it as a civilizational threat against the country and the rest of Europe.
In a 75-minute speech before 7,000 supporters in Paris — intended to introduce Ms. Pécresse, 54, the current leader of the Paris region and a former national minister of the budget and then higher education, to voters nationwide — Ms. Pécresse adopted Mr. Zemmour’s themes, saying the election would determine whether France is a “a united nation or a divided nation.”
She said that France was not doomed to the “great replacement” and called on her supporters “to rise up.” In the same speech, she drew a distinction between “French of the heart” and “French of papers” — an expression used by the extreme right to point to naturalized citizens. Vowing not to let France be subjugated, she said of the symbol of France, “Marianne is not a veiled woman” — referring to the Muslim veil.
“By using the ‘great replacement,’ she gave it legitimacy and put the ideas of the extreme right at the heart of the debate of the presidential race,” said Philippe Corcuff, an expert on the far right who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon. “When she talks of ‘French of papers,’ she’s saying that distinctions will be made between French people according to ethnic criteria. Her stigmatization of the Muslim veil is in the same logic of the extreme right.”
The use of a term once limited to the extreme right by Ms. Pécresse — who is the candidate of the Republicans, the party of former Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac — marked a “Rubicon,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist presidential candidate and current mayor of Paris.
But it also made uneasy people inside her own party, who still want to draw clear lines between it and the extreme right. Xavier Bertrand, a party heavyweight, said, “The great replacement, that’s not us,” according to French news media.
Polls show Ms. Pécresse, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Zemmour neck and neck for second place behind Mr. Macron in the first round of voting, scheduled for April 10. One of them would face off against Mr. Macron, who has also shifted to the right, especially in the past two years of his presidency, in the second round on April 24.
The sudden rise of Mr. Zemmour as a candidate has injected the “great replacement” and other explosive issues into the race, forcing other candidates on the right to fine-tune their positions at the risk of losing support to him.
Ms. Le Pen had expressly rejected the slogan, criticizing it as a conspiracy theory. While she has kept her distance from the term, her party’s president, Jordan Bardella, has started referring to it in recent months.
Facing criticism, Ms. Pécresse backpedaled a little, saying her use of the expression had been misconstrued.
But Nicolas Lebourg, a political scientist specializing in the right and far right, said that her use of the term simply reflected a political calculation: the center right’s traditional middle-class supporters have also shifted rightward in recent years.
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“Since 2010, there’s been a significant hardening by upper-middle-class voters against immigration and Islam, but we hadn’t seen its political effects yet,” Mr. Lebourg said. “So what we’re experiencing now is a tipping over of part of the middle-class and upper middle-class.”
These voters are worried about issues like “wokisme” — the supposed contamination of France by “woke” American ideas on social justice that they see as overwrought political correctness.
“It’s middle-class voters who care about ‘wokisme,’ while Le Pen’s working-class supporters are completely uninterested in that,” Mr. Lebourg said.
The “great replacement” was conjured up by a French writer named Renaud Camus in 2010. In an interview in 2019, Mr. Camus bemoaned the fact that leading politicians had rejected the slogan. The slogan and his embrace of the far right had turned him into a pariah in France’s literary and media circles, forcing him to publish his own books.
But in recent months, Mr. Camus has been invited back on television talk shows.
In an email exchange on Tuesday, he said, “I can only be delighted by the use of the expression, ‘great replacement,’ during this presidential campaign.”
Other campaign issues, like the pandemic and consumer purchasing power, were minor next to the reality described by the slogan, he said.
“The rest is of no importance by comparison,” he said.