On Sept. 1, 1998, a deserted British island in the English Channel called Les Minquiers was invaded by a commando of six marines on a sailing ship from the Kingdom of Patagonia. Tearing away the English flag on the island, they planted the Patagonian blue, white, and green flag in its place, put Patagonian stickers on the buildings and renamed its public toilet the most septentrional building of the Patagonian kingdom. It was the second invasion of the kind, the first having occurred in 1984. In both cases, the military governor of Patagonia had issued the same “new constitution” for the newly conquered territory, forbidding “all unions and political parties” and claiming that the “royal commandos of Patagonia were to observe the most perfect politeness toward the population that has welcomed us with such jubilation.”
The island was, in fact, a piece of rock devoid of any human life. The author of the constitution and military chief of the whole operation was Patagonia’s self-appointed vice consul acting in the name of Orélie-Antoine I, king of Patagonia, dead more than a century prior. He was Jean Raspail, a forgotten French writer, author of some 45 books, and he was granted a meeting with a middle-ranking diplomat from the British embassy in Paris. Thus ended the “invasion” and, with it, the last notable public apparition of Jean Raspail—until current Trump White House Rasputin Steve Bannon started to brandish one of his novels as the Bible of the 21st century.
Bannon’s first mention of Raspail’s book occurred almost in passing in October 2015 in an analysis by the then-editor-in-chief of Bretibart.com on the refugee crisis: “It’s been almost a Camp of the Saint-type invasion into Central and then Western and Northern Europe.” Bannon repeated his cryptic reference a few months later in January 2016—“it’s not a migration. It’s an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints”—and again in April of the same year—“I mean, this is Camp of the Saints, isn’t it?” It seemed that, for Bannon, “The Camp of the Saints” was as obvious a cultural reference as Macbeth, Ulysses, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
It took a moment even for the French to make the connection to Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, which draws its title from the Apocalypse According to Saint-John. The novel tells the story of a group of French Partisans who commit to the defense of the country after millions of dark-skinned “miséreux” (destitute) invade from India with the help of young hippie “collaborators.” On the boats that drive them to France, the dark-skinned invaders spend their time in giant orgies; their leader eats his own shit. French authorities collapse in the face of the “invasion” and planetary chaos ensues (among other plagues and horrors, the queen of England is forced to marry her son to a Pakistani woman and the mayor of New York must shelter an Afro-American family). Meanwhile, the French résistants take up arms. As he’s about to kill a perverse radical hippie, Raspail’s alter ego, Calgues, reminds himself of the KKK and of the glorious era of the Crusades.
For years a cult favorite on the far right, the book never reached a wider audience and was soon forgotten. Yet, it says something about the general atmosphere in France these days that when Raspail’s publisher reprinted the book at the author’s insistence, it sold 20,000 copies in two months, which made it the No. 1 novel on Amazon’s best-seller list in France—preparing the way, one could argue, for Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. By 2016, The Camp of the Saints had sold 110,000 copies. In the United States, according to the Huffington Post, the 1975 Scribner’s translation was reissued back in 1983 thanks to the American heiress Cordelia Scaife May and the former ophthalmologist John Tanton, who’s been accused of neo-Nazi views and who defends himself by saying his concern over immigration first came after he read The Camp of the Saints, republished the book again in 2001.
“I had no idea this Steve, eh, Bannon existed at all,” Raspail told me when we recently spoke at his apartment in Paris. “I read the press, I keep myself informed, I do understand a bit of English so a French journalist had me listen to what Bannon said about me the other day. I must say I was stunned. I mean, I’m satisfied in a certain sense, because I don’t know this character and he has understood The Camp of the Saints. He has said that reading it made him see what should be done. Isn’t it extraordinary?”
At 91, Raspail is tall and in obviously good shape. He’s elegantly dressed in the timeless fashion of the French bourgeoisie and wears a small white mustache. His blue eyes shine with a mix of an almost childish candor, and his manners are affable and almost laid-back. Nothing in this charming old man calls to mind the narcissistic grandiosity that afflicts so many French intellectuals and writers—or suggests that he wrote the racist anti-immigrant bible of the extreme right. “The prophet” as Résistance Républicaine—a website with close ties to the National Front—recently called him, lives in a nice apartment in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. In the living room are reminders of his vocation as an “explorer,” 20 to 30 ships in bottles, which decorate an entire wall. His desk sits in a small room whose walls are covered with pictures of his many trips, posters of his books. The shelves crammed with books and items of all kinds, a U.S. poster indicating the entrance to an Indian reservation, a reproduction of the canot in which he traveled the in 1949 from the Saint Lawrence River to St. Louis and, needless to say, a flag from Patagonia, which he still serves, he’s proud to say, as vice consul. On a door, a poster shows the naïve drawing of a French soldier of the Foreign Legion on a horse and carrying a French flag—an illustration for a children’s comic adaptation of one of his novels. “This room,” he said leading me in, “is my real home.” In a distant room, his wife’s voice soon recedes and vanishes. Silence. He sits down behind his desk. I first think this is not the desk of a Céline at all; this is the desk of a child—a French Catholic child of the 1930s.
Of The Camp of the Saints, he tells me what he tells everyone—how the book came to him in a rush, or like an illumination after he’d reread the Bible, how he wrote it without a plan or note, and how even then, the process had seemed to him both “strange” and “so simple.” But isn’t this what revelations are like? Is The Camp of the Saints France? I asked him.
“No, it is the Western world,” he answered. “The Judeo-Christian civilization. And this Western world is Europe from Portugal to the Urals, and it also includes the United States, whatever they want to say. And, I am sorry to say, it is white. There is no other Western World for me than white. That’s how it is. Even when we fought each other, there has always been a similarity between us Westerners, a similar sense of the sacred. Our churches, whether they had bulbs like in the orthodox world or no bulb as in our Catholic country, were identical! And,” he adds, “it includes the synagogues!”
The idea that Jews are part of the “Judeo-Christian” heritage is the new rage among French ultraconservatives now that Islam has become the main enemy. Yet it remains a touchy subject for obvious reasons, which is both logical—Christians need the Jews to be “Judeo-Christian,” but the reverse isn’t true—and, as Raspail’s tirade above demonstrates, historical. That synagogues were a welcome part of the French landscape in Raspail’s beloved European 19th century is everything but obvious. When he asked me what my name was, he thought at first that it was from Alsace. When I told him it’s a Ukrainian Jewish name he joyfully answered, “And why not!”
“In one of my books,” he went on, like some sort of a cartoonish version of Thomas Mann, “I invented the Pickendork family. You had the Von Pickendorf in Germany, the Pickendew in England. … That was the true, old Europe! Europe is not the shitty Brussels commission with its shitty economic questions! The moral and social organization of Europe was feudalism. And it was beautiful! You depended on someone who depended on someone, and so on. Every country in Europe worked that way! This cannot be the case any longer today. But I do remain a royalist. Honor, for me, is important. As are dedication, loyalty, obedience, and love of country. I won’t hide from you that I had a very strong education in the Boy Scouts,” he added strangely. “I’m not hiding it and I’m not ashamed of it.”
So, I wondered, did he recognize these values in any politician today? “De Gaulle,” he immediately answered, “was the last great politician in France. Even though I was never a Gaullist myself, not particularly.”
“Not even during the war?” I asked.
“No,” he answered as if the possibility were incongruous. “Me, I was a Gaullist after. I was too young during the war; I didn’t give a damn. I was born in 1925, you know.”
“You’re my father’s age,” I replied.
“Oh really? Was he in France at the time? Where did he live? I mean when he was 15 in 1940?”
“Well,” I answered, “first he had to hide.”
“Oh yes! Yes, of course. Excuse me. Did he come through, by the way?” he asked so very politely, as if my father suffered for four years from some kind of very problematic flu.
“Then,” I offered in manner of answering, “he entered the Resistance.”
“He took to the Maquis? Besides, it was the only thing to do, wasn’t it? Me, no, I didn’t do this.”
“What did you do?” I asked. There was a silence. Then he said: “I … This is rather curious. I had sympathies for neither of the belligerents. So I took my bicycle and I traveled through France. It was an extraordinary feeling of freedom.”
Now it was my turn to fall silent. Although we’re both French, his answer was too foreign not only from my own family’s experience but from anything I expected him to say. It took some explaining before I realized that, in Raspail’s mind, what he calls the belligerents in France during WWII are not the Nazis and the Vichy administration on the one hand and the Résistants on the other, as they are for me. No: Once France signed the armistice, WWII, for him, was a contest between the Germans and the Americans. That’s why he had no sympathies for either of them. That’s why he never even thought of entering the Resistance. He didn’t have a dog in the fight. Yes, joining the Maquis was the only thing do—but for people like my father only.
His father, he told me, was one of the youngest high-ranking officers in the prestigious military school of Saint-Cyr, the French West Point, in 1914. When WWI started he got sick, had a kidney removed, was declared unfit for combat, and couldn’t make the war. He was appointed military adviser in the French embassy of Berne, instead, to do some spying and after 1918, in the Sarre region to supervise the mines. The family lived in Sarbrück until 1937 and, in 1935, witnessed the entrance of “the Hitlerians” in Sarbrück: squadrons of S.A. marching with torches in the streets. “My father abruptly closed the windows, and that’s how I understood he wasn’t on their side,” he remembered. “But he wasn’t on De Gaulle’s side, either. He was a soldier, and Pétain was Marshall.” In a certain sense, you do not get more mainstream French than that.
It is very tempting to explain Raspail’s trajectory as a voyage from powerlessness to the void. Take, for instance, his emphasis on the Catholic Boy Scouts—of which he remained a leader until his 24th birthday; his first exploration trip in 1949, set up with the scouts, determined his choice between his two vocations as an explorer and as a writer: “When I came back, Le Figaro asked me [to do] reporting and I realized I knew how to write. All those countries,” he added, “they were French!”
In all fairness, most of Raspail’s books, if they don’t put their author among “the most incandescent writers of our time” as Le Figaro once insisted, do betray some stylistic talent. None exactly deserve to be called bad. But in a sense, they’re worse—they’re empty. Not one American appears in the flesh in the 300 pages or so that Raspail dedicates to his trip through America, for example, except for a few silhouettes illustrating anecdotes devoid of any contemporary meaning. Once in the South, shocked by the segregation he and his friends witness, they take it upon themselves to sit ostensibly in a bus in “the Negro” section and are quickly rebuked by the black people themselves—who probably know what was in store for them if they let this happen. “It served as a lesson,” tellingly concludes Raspail. “From this day on, we choose the side of indifference.”
But powerlessness is not the same thing as neutrality. Nice, elegant, always polite, no Vichyite or anti-Semite if he is to be believed, Raspail, like so many French of his generation and his class who did not enter the Resistance, was and remains clearly on one side. To this day, he is proud of having as a mentor in literature Marcel Jouhandeau—a man who attempted suicide for being homosexual and trying to seduce his pupils, and who, during the Occupation years, wrote a series of anti-Semitic articles in the collaborationist press under the title Péril Juif (The Jewish Danger). Jouhandeau also traveled to Nazi Germany at Goebbels’ invitation. We also find Raspail’s name among the members of the Association Robert Brasillach, dedicated to the writer of the same name—the chief editor of the ultra-anti-Semitic paper Je Suis Partout who was condemned to death after the war for his collaboration with the Nazis. More recently, the republication in 2011 of Camp of the Saints was made possible thanks to the pressure of a friend of Jean Raspail, a lawyer named Jacques Trémollet de Villers, whose mentor was the minister of information during the Vichy regime, Tixier-Vignacourt.
Anti-modern by conviction, Raspail specialized in what he calls disappearing populations, obscure Indian tribes like the Lacalouffe or the Yagans—except that being no Lévi-Strauss, he has nothing to say about them at all. To him, the world is like a reliquary of past glories in which he wanders, powerless, like a real-life Tintin. His part as vice consul of Patagonia inscribed itself in the same fashion. That joke goes back in France in the mid-19th century when an eccentric called Orélie-Antoine Tournens came back from Patagonia swearing he’d be sacred there as king. Tounens’ successor, Achille Laviarde, became a sort of clownish figure for sardonic people in Paris such as Baudelaire. Bruce Chatwin, who wrote a book on Patagonia, mentions him as a pathetic figure and recalls that Rimbaud in one of his letters already mocked the bourgeois fashion of making patrouillotisme with cheap mythology. (Patrouillotisme’s a Rimbaldian word game mixing patriotism and trouille, which in French slang means “cheap fear.”) Since then, that part of French culture was always characterized by a mix of grandiosity, emptiness, and kitsch Romanticism masochistically staged as noble defeat. That such figures could be resurrected today by Americans is simply astounding.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.