On the night of June 23, France discovered with stupefaction that “ultra-right” terrorism was actually a much more real and present risk than many had imagined.
A crackdown by the special forces of the Interior Ministry resulted in the arrest of ten activists, nine men and a woman, who belonged to a group called “Action des forces opérationnelles” (AFO) (Operational Forces Action). The suspects are notably varied group. Its members’ ages range from 32 to 69 and it includes a former teacher, a craftsman, a restaurant employee, a former soldier and a retired police officer. Only two of the ten were known to the justice system: one for traffic offences and the other for narcotics offences.
During the police search, 39 firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found, most of them held without proper authorization. Materials for producing TATP explosives were also seized.
The project was strikingly advanced and significant when compared with earlier ultra-right plots, such as the case of the 22-year-old man “Logan N.”, who was arrested in southern France for planning to attack Muslim targets.
All this makes for yet another burden for the security services: “Even if they remain embryonic, these small groups trumpet their will to fight back and we follow that very closely”, a high-ranking intelligence officer told Mediapart when news of the arrests broke. The investigation of AFO began in April, when the French domestic security service DGSI discovered that members of the group were trying to make homemade grenades.
AFO may claim to fight the radical Islam that feeds terrorism, but their intended targets went far beyond those circles. Along with radical imams and former terrorist detainees who have been released from jail, they planned to attack veiled women or simple Muslims. Among the plans that emerged during their interrogation by the police was one nicknamed the “halal project” – poisoning halal meat in supermarkets with a powerful pesticide.
Even on their public website, which is still active, one can find indications that the group planned to cross legal lines. For example, it features “reflex cards” for the supporters of the group to help them prepare for a “serious crisis”.
The AFO takes an apocalyptic posture in anticipation of imminent civil war, as if France is set to switch to a general confrontation between its Muslims and “French-born” people in the aftermath of the next major terrorist attack. This vision mixes racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, painting migrants as a fifth column of a conquering Islam. History is part of the picture: political scientist Jean-Yves Camus notes the influence of the French-Algerian war in the ideological formation of this movement.
It is important to say that the fear spreading among the fringes of the French public about the possibility – or even the imminence – of a civil war is also promoted by personalities far beyond ultra-right militant circles.
For example, see Thibault de Montbrial, a lawyer who runs a think-tank on homeland security and is often invited by the media to deliver terrorism analysis, in an interview with Le Figaro on 19 June 2015. He says “civil war is a real risk to which our society is exposed if the current situation continues to be observed with the prejudices, naivety and sometimes cowardice that have led to the various policies carried out in France on these issues for forty years.” He added, “the only chance to avoid a clash between communities will lie in the firm reclaiming of a common base of values around which to gather our social body, and in the abandonment of a suicidal multiculturalism that throws us into it [a clash].”
In fact, this specter of a “civil war” is raised repeatedly by several personalities, in both politics and the media, especially in the wake of major attacks. Not all these personalities can be classified as far right, even though their discourse is often characterized by critical views vis-à-vis the place of Islam in France, or its visibility.
For its part, the far right reacted to the AFO arrests with denial. Marine Le Pen called on people not to “amalgamate” her party (RN, or Rassemblement national, previously known as Front national) and the militant group. One of her deputies, Nicolas Bay, has argued that the main violence is carried out by jihadists and by the far left. Several have questioned the reality of the terrorist project by accusing the government of playing with the agenda to undermine the entire right. Another RN leader, Louis Aliot, blamed the creation of such a militia on what he sees as the inefficiency of the state in protecting its citizens: “If self-defense groups are formed, it is primarily because the state is lax against radical Islam.”
Nicolas Lebourg, an historian specialized in the far right, also weighed in with an important video vignette on Loopsider. In his view, it is very important to distinguish between the far right and the ultra-right. “Ultra-right is a term used by the police to designate the violent extreme right-wing and to differentiate it from the legal far-right,” he says. Nor should we draw a parallel with the ultra-left, which in France refers to non-Leninist communists, who are not necessarily violent. Lebourg recalls that the ultra-right groups of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States and Europe were “neo-Nazi groups, violently anti-Semitic, whose ideology was completely disconnected from that of the masses.” Our times are different: “today, criticism of the multicultural society and Islam in Europe are a product of mass consumption.” As a result, “there is much more capacity to accept this violence socially and therefore it is much easier to make it happen.”
Comments posted by internet users on news sites tend to overrepresent populist views, but they do reflect a real and significant divide among the public. Many netizens take up the theses put forward by RN leaders, in particular on the failings of the state or the theory that the danger of the far right is imaginary and fabricated by the government in order to pursue an “anti-French “policy, favorable to foreigners and Muslims.
The slow diffusion of these ideas in public opinion, with a wave of terrorist attacks in France since 2015 for a backdrop, reflects a ” reaction radicalization”. For example, a survey conducted by the online media group Atlantico shows that many French people would not criticize “uncontrolled retaliation” from individuals out to “seek revenge or justice” by attacking mosques, shops or neighborhoods frequented by the Muslim population. Only 51% would condemn such attacks while 39% would understand them without approving them and 10% would approve them.
The French government claims it has made rapid advances in the fight against radicalization. Over the last three years it has presented three successive plans to counter the phenomenon. However, the mandate of the body responsible for preventing and combating violent extremism, the CIPDR, only covers Islamist radicalization. Faced with the emergence of deep fissures across society which lead to a significant minority actually approving illegal violence, the question of extending this mandate to all forms of radicalization leading to violence clearly arises.
 M. Dagry, Menaces d’attaques islamophobes: dix membres du groupuscule d’extrême droite mis en examen, Le Figaro, June 28, 2018.
 M. Suc – M. Turchi – J. Massey, Coup de filet au sein d’une cellule clandestine de l’ultra-droite, Mediapart, June 24, 2018.
 A. Devecchio, Thibault de Montbrial : «Aucun endroit du territoire n’est à l’abri», Le Figaro, June 26, 2018.
 J. Fourquet – V. Tournier, Terrorisme, la facture : 80 % des Français seraient prêts à accepter davantage de contrôles et une certaine limitation de leurs libertés et 75% anticipent des opérations de représailles incontrôlées envers la population musulmane en cas d’attentats, Atlantico, June 26, 2018.