Europe has found itself once again talking about the rising popularity of extreme-right parties following the preliminary success of French presidential hopeful Marine le PEN, leader of the Front National (FN) party, who acquired 19 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential elections this week. This marked an unprecedented success for her party, but research indicates that the extreme right and anti-immigrant platform has evolved significantly and is gaining growing support from center-right voters across most of Europe.
Dutch politician Geert Wilders' extreme right Party for Freedom (PVV) was able to cause the collapse of the government in the Netherlands last week, in another timely reminder that the extreme right in Europe could become a real threat. Once marginal, far-right parties now have the power to shape the future of politics in Europe. In seven European countries, extreme right wing parties are supporting coalition governments. After abandoning its anti-Semitism, the extreme right has adopted anti-Islamic and anti-immigration policies. Extreme right parties are doing reasonably well in France, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Holland, Belgium, Finland, Italy and the Baltic countries. The profile of those voting for them has also changed, including unemployed but educated people and the young.
The new right was born out of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Most of them were set up by leaders who had quit central right parties. Over the course of the past 10 years, they have been able to weaken the left in many European countries and lay the foundations for central right parties to come to power. Leaders such as Wilders, Le Pen and Heinz-Christian Strache have been capitalizing on the population's fear of losing their national identity in the face of immigration from Muslim countries and amidst the economic crisis.
In order to overcome the problem of political legitimacy, these leaders have adopted a discourse asserting that they are defending their local values against the Islamization of Europe, instead of employing a directly racist language.
Jean-François Stéphan, a researcher from the France based National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) explains, “The old extreme right was anti-Semitic and sometimes pro violence. It defended a return to Christian values, emphasized family values and patriarchal authority. It used Nazi symbols. The new extreme right movements thrive on the fear of losing European identity because of Muslim migration and reactions to the economic crisis.” In its political discourse, Europe’s extreme right now emphasizes values that have traditionally been upheld by populist left-wing parties, such as secularism, human rights, gender equality, feminism and sexual freedoms. Extreme right parties consider and play on local sensitivities unique to their respective countries, but their common point is their opposition to Islam. For example, in Scandinavian countries, Muslim migrants are accused of fanning homophobia, while in France they are portrayed as a threat to secularism. Extreme right wing parties, who in the past spearheaded the neo-nazi ideology, also have no qualms about reversing their own symbols. For example, contrary to her father, who denied the Holocaust, Marine Le Pen likens Muslims who pray outside in the streets of Paris to Nazi officers during the occupation of France. Geert Wilders insults Muslim believers by drawing parallels between the Quran and Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
Joost Lagendijk, a former politician from the Dutch Green Party, said he agreed that the growing popularity of the extreme right is not a passing fad. He said the supporters of these parties comprised 15 to 20 percent of the population in most countries. “This is not related to the presence of the economic crisis, although the crisis certainly strengthens the position of these parties. This is more strongly related to the question of European identity, or national identity. What does it mean to be French? Or Dutch? This is where migration comes in,” he said, explaining why right wing parties treated migration as a major threat to national identity. “It is here to stay and it is not going to pass, even after the crisis is over.” However, he said it was worth noting that between 15 to 20 percent of voters opted for these parties, saying that although this is a significant minority, 80 percent in Europe do not support these parties. He said in addition to being anti-immigration, the reason for these parties’ opposition to the EU was because they also saw the bloc as a threat to national identity, no less than the migrants. “In the Netherlands, the breakdown of the government happened because Mr. Wilders took issue with European budget cuts, not because of migrants.”
He said changes in the policies and discourse of right wing parties, such as defending women’s or gay rights and having “a leftist rhetoric on certain issues” was a “complicated phenomenon that cannot be explained easily.”
Emine Bozkurt, a Dutch Labor Party politician of Turkish descent and member of the European Parliament, noted that the European Police Office (Europol) report released on Wednesday indicating extreme right terror was a growing threat was important. She said the activities of the extreme-right should be kept under close monitoring, noting that the European Commission should also be paying closer attention to extreme right terrorism.
She said that instead of sitting down and waiting in fear, people should take proactive action. “Of course, this is not a great development. But we have our fundamental rights here. We have legal rights we can exercise against discrimination. We should take a stance and exercise our rights,” she told Today’s Zaman.
Bozkurt also said the extreme right had failed to deliver: “They are completely unable to produce solutions to real, existing problems. And people are seeing that. Wilder’s party is not doing as well in the Netherlands as it was before.” She noted that even media organs which were supportive of the PVV were upset by its role in the breakup of the government.
The image portrayed by the new leaders of the extreme right has also changed. Conservative extreme-right leaders of the past such as France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and Denmark’s Mogens Glistrup, have been succeeded by leaders such as Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria, who sports a Che Guevera t-shirt, the pony-tailed Oskar Freysinger of Switzerland and Le Pen, who describes herself as a feminist. The face of the new extreme right in Europe was shaped at a time when a new generation of Muslims, who were well-educated unlike their parents, started to appear in the public sphere.
A new voter base
Radical changes are also taking place in these parties’ electoral bases. In the past, religious Christians with little education from poor neighborhoods in rural areas used to support the extreme right. Today, they have been replaced by an educated social segment with a higher socio-economic status. Research indicates that between 38 and 50 percent of the extreme right-wing voters in Denmark, Switzerland, France and Austria are corporate executives or private business owners. The grassroots right-wingers, on the other hand, are no longer the violent skinheads of the 1990s, but middle-class youth organizing through social media. Polls show that Le Pen is the most popular leader with voters between the ages of 18 and 24. This young generation no longer questions the Holocaust, but reflects its anger on its peers from Algeria in France and from Kosovo in Switzerland as well as the Roma in the Balkans. According to a study conducted by the British think-tank Demos in 2011, young people with extreme-right and anti-Islam views use the Internet extensively to spread their views and promote their cause.
Another common enemy: the EU
The second enemy of the extreme right in European politics is the European Union (EU). The stronger position of these parties which advocate against the free movement of people and the euro in many European countries is creating concern in Brussels. Although they have not yet been able to form a group in the European Parliament, a group of political parties led by the Freedom Party of Austria, the People’s Party of Denmark and Lega Nord of Italy came together with others including Greece’s Laos Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belan, Bulgaria’s Ataka and the British National Party came together to push for ceasing membership talks with Turkey. In particular, Le Pen and Austria’s Strache have come together many times in Vienna and Paris to develop common strategies.
One of the most important factors behind the far right-wing parties’ gaining strength is the close relations they established with right-wing conservative parties over the past decade. Pia Kjaersgaard, leader of the Danish People’s Party, whose party came out as the third most successful party in the 2011 elections, receiving 12 percent of the vote, preferred to support the government from outside instead of being a part of it. Although Kjaersgaard did not become a coalition partner of the coalition government consisting of Liberal and Conservative parties, she became a de facto partner of the government.
According to the Danish People’s Party, the source of all the problems in that country is immigrants. Hence the party has become the architect of the strictest anti-immigration law in Europe. Following the Danish example, the leader of Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, voiced support for this government. The Netherlands, which was the symbol of Europe’s multiculturalism until the Sept. 11 attacks, today has one of the world’s strictest immigration laws. In France, Sarkozy, who promoted the discourse of the far right and was elected president in 2007, has played a significant role in the success of Le Pen today.
Political pundits emphasize that the new far right will weaken left-wing politics in Europe and continue to change the central axis of politics. According to Benjamin Abtan, president of European Grassroots Antiracist Movement, the fight against the discourse of the new far right could be through the joint development of a democratic attitude by right-wing and left-wing politicians.
“European democrats should launch an ideological war against this dominant discourse. They should stand against [ethnic] protectionism, fear and hatred for others,” he said.