Arrived in Paris Tuesday with few intentions beyond watching some tennis (French Open qualifying, the inexpensive and crowd-free formula for spectating a high level of the sport), eating well, and hanging out with my wife after her several hectic weeks of preparing our daughter’s wedding. But it was soon clear that the European civilizational crisis (cf. Death of the West) while often easy to ignore, is very much with us. In a suburb of Stockholm, some immigrant youths have fought the police four successive nights (“youths acting youthy,” summarized Steve Sailer, sardonically), while in London yesterday two African Islamists hacked a soldier to death with a machete. In Paris on Tuesday afternoon a 78-year-old far-right activist and historian, Dominique Venner, entered the sanctuary at Notre Dame, deposited a suicide note at the altar, and shot himself in the mouth.

Venner was a serious figure in France’s extrême-droite, a phrase with different and far richer connotations than “extreme-right” in America. A major current of French intellectuals opposed the Revolution, quite understandably, and kept at it, rhetorically, throughout the 19th century. A French Right standing for traditional authority, order, aristocracy, the nation (and skeptical about fraternity, equality, and the various French republics) has been a constant and serious force, able sometimes to speak for nearly half the country. The far right hasn’t been violent since the early sixties—when right-wing officers of the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète tried to spark a coup against De Gaulle for letting go of Algeria—but as a current in French political life, it is always there. Today its main concern is immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, and in its current political incarnation, the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, has jettisoned the party’s submerged but never absent anti-Semitism for a militant pro-Zionist and anti-Muslim line. Le Pen garnered 18 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, and the FN is a fairly serious minor party, receiving 13 percent of the first-round votes in the legislative elections and holding quite a few local offices. Hostility to immigration is a “populist” cause, and many of the FN’s voters used to vote communist; nevertheless there is an aristocratic and intellectual aura to the far right dating to the Revolution, and not entirely absent from today’s FN. It is this of which Dominique Venner was a part.

The goals of the suicide are easy enough to imagine. Part is surely vanity—Venner’s blog, I’m sure, has received more attention in the past two days than its entire previous existence, and every intellectual wants to be read. He was old and recently diagnosed with a grave unspecified illness. His concrete goal was to pull together two disparate groups of disaffected conservatives, the opponents of gay marriage (as in the U.S. a sizeable, somewhat shell-shocked minority) and the opponents of immigration. In his suicide note he tries to connect the two causes:

I protest against poisons of the soul and the desires of invasive individuals to destroy the anchors of our identity, including the family, the intimate basis of our multi-millennial civilization. While I defend the identity of all peoples in their homes, I also rebel against the crime of the replacement of our people.

In any case, no one in Paris is treating Venner as some kind of lone nut. He has fought for his beliefs, long after they were no longer fashionable. In 1954, you could not find a single major French politician supporting Algerian independence, and De Gaulle had to maneuver against the entire political system to bring France to accept it. Venner was one of several who never would, who believed that Algeria was eternally part of France and was willing to fight for it, even so far as plotting against his head of state. Like many high-ranking French officers, he plotted and lost and spent time in prison. Upon release he then carved out a career as an activist theoretician and, later in life, as a serious historian. Marine Le Pen, the third ranking French presidential candidate, honored him after his death.

I am not entirely without sympathy—there is part of the French Right which has a certain  appeal. But it has a knack for making very bad choices at critical moments, for being unable to recognize when to fight, when to retreat to more sensible ground. Charles De Gaulle, in my view probably the  greatest man of the 20th century, was able to incarnate much of the right’s virtues and sensibilities, but with a much sounder sense of  blending these virtues into the politics of a modern democratic republic. De Gaulle, often accused of being a fascist (in many cases ignorantly, by Americans) opposed Hitler in 1940 and understood that Algerian independence was inevitable in 1958. (I would be curious if Venner ever reflected upon what the effect of keeping Algeria would have been on the current demography of France.)

I too would oppose what Venner called “the replacement of our people,” but I suspect the reality is something different. Throughout Paris you can see groups of French lycéeans, flirting, smoking cigarettes, having their coffee in their cafes, huddling on their motorbikes. They now come in all colors. To some extent then, the demographic of old France is not being replaced so much as supplemented. It’s of course a question of balance and of numbers. I would trust De Gaulle to chart the right course, but sadly there is little evidence he has any true heirs in France’s political class.