One morning in 1972, French author Jean Raspail was at his home on the Mediterranean coast when he had a vision of a million refugees clamoring to enter Europe.
“Armed only with their weakness and their numbers, overwhelmed by misery, encumbered with starving brown and black children, ready to disembark on our soil,” he wrote. “To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”
At the time Raspail was a respected writer best known for his travelogues. But the racist novel that resulted from that episode, The Camp of the Saints, would become his most famous, most controversial and, surprisingly, most influential work.
For some 30 years, “Camp of the Saints has been one of the top two books in white supremacist circles,” said Heidi Beirich, an expert on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center leaked emails earlier this month in which President Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller touted the book to Breitbart staffers as a work with strong parallels to recent waves of migration.
Published in 1973, the dystopian novel details how a flotilla of Indian migrants reach France’s southern coast to invade the country. Political elites fail to respond to the influx, and the continent is overrun. For nearly half a century, the book has stoked fears of immigration that have, to its supporters, seemed increasingly prescient as growing numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers have arrived in Europe in recent years.
“Raspail can boast himself about being a prophet,” said Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “People now buy The Camp of the Saints because they want to read the book written by the writer who saw what would happen before everybody else.”
What Raspail described as a “parable” came to be seen as a canonical text in white nationalist circles.
“The power of the book comes from the very vivid images of near destruction of the white race, and the absence of resistance from the government,” said Cécile Alduy, professor of French studies at Stanford University who has studied the discourse of the French far right.
Its leader, Marine Le Pen, said “The Camp of the Saints,” which she read at 18, “left a great mark on her,” and urged French people to read it to understand what she described as the country’s “migratory submersion.” Steve Bannon claimed that European countries had been confronted with an “invasion” similar to the one described in The Camp of the Saints. Iowa Rep. Steve King argued that the book’s story “should be imprinted into everyone’s brain.”
In the US, Beirich said the book stood alongside The Turner Diaries, a race war novel by William Pierce, former head of the neo-Nazi group the National Alliance, as the top fictional references for white supremacists. The recognition of the place held by The Camp of the Saints in such circles may have reached a new high last week, when it was revealed that Miller, Trump’s influential immigration adviser, had cited it.
In September 2015, while European countries struggled with an immigration crisis, Miller encouraged Breitbart editors to write about Raspail’s book. Three weeks later, the conservative website ran a story noting that, like in the novel, contemporary Western leaders were “urging on ever larger waves” of immigration, and may well be “unable to erect walls.”
“The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policy is a direct consequence of taking Camp of the Saints as a blue book for governing,” Alduy said.
The migrants in The Camp of the Saints are portrayed as diseased people who eat human feces — the group’s leader is nicknamed “turd eater” — and their arrival is described as an “endless cascade of human flesh” clambering ashore like an “anthill slashed open.”
Now 94 and a well-traveled monarchist, Raspail seems an unlikely hero to the Americans for whom “globalist” is an insult. Indeed, when The Camp of the Saints was published, few could have predicted that the book would have such a wide-ranging afterlife.
The title is taken from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, a reference to the army gathered by Satan who overrun the earth, including the camp of the saints. Raspail drew on his experience documenting endangered communities in Latin America and elsewhere to imagine what waves of outsiders would mean for France’s culture, language and population.
The Camp of the Saints was translated into several European languages but was hardly a runaway hit. It was published as a hardcover in the U.S. in 1975 by Scribner and in a paperback edition two years later. A 1975 New York Times review described reading it as “like being trapped at a cocktail party with a normal‐looking fellow who suddenly starts a perfervid racist diatribe.”
Reclusive heiress Cordelia Scaife May, who used her fortune to bankroll the anti-immigration movement, gave $5,000 through her Laurel Foundation in 1983 to a group called the Institute for Western Values to distribute the English translation of the book in the U.S. The Social Contract Press, founded by John Tanton, the architect of the modern American anti-immigration movement, published an English edition and still sells it online.
The publisher’s note to the Social Contract edition explains how, unlike in a work of nonfiction, “storytellers can advance notions prohibited to others,” predicting that the book could “become the ‘1984’ of the twenty-first century,” referencing the famous George Orwell novel about totalitarianism.
Raspail’s book helped inspire “The Great Replacement,” the idea that white populations of Western countries could soon be supplanted by newer arrivals. Another French writer, Renaud Camus, developed the theory, which has become increasingly popular in white supremacist circles over recent years.
The man accused of killing 51 people in attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year, titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement.” It was also cited by the shooter at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
Although he has acknowledged that his book was “dangerous,” Raspail has said in recent years that he would not withdraw a single line. He has claimed that the invasion in The Camp of the Saints was an accelerated version of what he called the “infiltration” faced by France over the past several decades.
In France, a new edition published in 2011 became a bestseller. The book was published for the first time in Dutch in 2015. That same year a right-wing press republished it in German.
Camus, of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said Raspail attracted hundreds of fans at an October book signing in Paris for his latest novel, adding, “Those who are obsessed with decadence do like prophets a lot.”
Elian Peltier and Nicholas Kulish c.2019 The New York Times Company
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Updated Date: Nov 27, 2019 15:29:18 IST