Radical right-wing parties are on the rise in Europe, but they’re not all as extreme as their opponents make them out to be.
Marine Le Pen’s Front National topped the polls in the first round of the 2015 French regional elections, achieving 28% of the vote (although the party failed to win any regions in the second round). Apparently, French voters were “shocked” at the victory, despite the fact that FN have been polling consistently high since September. The far-right party’s meteoric rise comes amidst a general explosion of support for radical and populist right-of-centre parties across Europe. Just one election cycle ago, the prospect of the “extreme right” gaining such levels of support would have been unthinkable. Now Ms Le Pen has her eyes on the Elysée Palace. Faced with the possibility of radical-right parties forming governments in the near future, we need to ask how extreme these parties really are, and what the consequences could be of them gaining power.
As its public support has grown, Marine Le Pen has made great efforts to “detoxify” her party. She even revoked the membership of her father Jean-Marie, who founded the party in 1972, and has been convicted multiple times for inciting racial hatred. Under him, the Front National engaged in overtly racist and neo-fascist rhetoric, whereas his daughter has moved the rhetorical focus onto issues of sovereignty and value preservation. Ms Le Pen has taken advantage of the FN’s position as France’s major eurosceptic party, highlighting associated issues such as immigration and democratic reform, as well as shifting to the left economically in order to garner more working-class votes. The party’s polices don’t seem extreme by today’s standards; they want to leave the EU and the euro, control immigration, increase funding for the police, raise import duties and simplify the tax code.
Over in The Netherlands, Le Pen’s European parliamentary associate Geert Wilders leads the Party for Freedom (PVV). Wilders, who was once banned from setting foot on British soil, has made his reputation as a staunch opponent of Islam, creating the notorious short film Fitna which associates verses from the Koran with acts of terrorism. As of 6 December 2015, PVV has a 19 point lead in the polls. In Denmark, the radical right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP), whose founder was once named “Racist of the year” by a Swedish magazine, came second in Denmark’s 2015 general election, and are now in coalition with the governing party Venstre. Their Swedish counterpart the Sweden Democrats, who once had neo-Nazi leanings, are polling a close third. One could be forgiven for thinking that the extremists are taking over.
When we examine these parties more closely however, we discover that the situation is more complicated. Take Wilders for example: despite being labelled far-right, he considers himself a classical liberal and idolises Margaret Thatcher. His policy proposals, which include liberalising the economy and leaving the EU but also banning the Koran and the building of new mosques, are a strange mixture. The Sweden Democrats, under the leadership of the young Jimmie Åkesson, have shed their fascism in favour of a focus on security issues. They oppose the major Swedish parties’ highly liberal stance on immigration and integration, which they see as contributing to the current state of unrest in Swedish inner cities. Their other policies include an increase in welfare for the elderly, tougher sentences for serious crimes, and opposition to “elitist cultural initiatives”.
These radical-right parties are distinguished from the mainstream more by their tactics and rhetoric than their policies. All of them are decidedly populist, railing (in a deliberately non-PC fashion) against the political Establishment in an attempt to sympathise with the disillusioned and the politically disempowered. The left have a tendency to look at this approach and conclude that the radical-right parties constitute some kind of return to 1930s-style fascism. This is an inaccurate assessment. Whereas the fascists saw themselves as revolutionary opponents of liberal democracy and Enlightenment rationalism, the modern radical-right see themselves as defenders of democracy and liberty. The populist “Us vs. Them” discourse which was once used to indict modernity is now used to defend individual freedom and democracy against the perceived threats of EU technocracy, socialist economics and radical Islam.
If we want to know what a radical-right government is like, we could look at Switzerland. The populist, national-conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has governed in coalition for two decades. During that time, the SVP has kept Switzerland out of the EU, as well as putting forward a programme of economic liberalism, direct democracy, isolationist foreign policy and reduced immigration. Switzerland is arguably the most successful nation in Europe. Perhaps being governed by the radical-right is not such a bad prospect.
In the UK, the radical-right trend manifests itself as Ukip. Ukip is arguably much more moderate than its continental counterparts, which makes it even stranger that the party is having nowhere near as much success in the polls. What is holding back radical-right dominance in Britain? Perhaps it is the fact that, being outside of the Schengen area and the eurozone, Britain has been shielded to some extent from the most damaging effects of the EU and the migration crisis. Even if Ukip did reach 20 or 25 per cent in the polls, the UK’s highly disproportional voting system means we’re unlikely to see a Ukip government anytime soon.
The rise of radical political forces is by nature a temporary trend. Either the Establishment reasserts itself, or the radical parties topple it and become the new establishment. The current rise of the radical-right is not a return to fascism, but an aggressive, populist defence of freedom and democracy. Is it something to fear? A little, if it leads to a climate of intolerance and social illiberalism. Is it something to cheer? Yes, if it alerts mainstream parties to the voters’ anger and disillusionment. Perhaps if the mainstream parties had listened to voters in the first place, the rise of the radical-right would never have been necessary.