The second round of the French regional elections in December 2015 ended with a defeat for the National Front.
Nevertheless, this party is now a concrete threat for France and Europe. Under Marine Le Pen&’s leadership, it shot up to 17.9 per cent in the 2012 presidential elections, became the largest French political party at the 2014 Euro-elections, carried away one-fourth of the vote at the departmental elections in March 2015 and has finally scored 27.7 per cent at these regional elections. It is a success that cannot be explained only in relation to the Paris attack in November; it concerns a deeper political change that is taking place all over Europe.
The uniformity of approach of social-democratic and conservative parties to political and economic questions and the growing hostility of public opinion to the Brussels technocracy have helped to produce a major transformation in the political context. In the last few years, a profound aversion has developed towards anything that can be described as ‘politics’. Some bipartisan systems have simply imploded, as in post-dictatorship Spain and Greece, where Socialist and centre-right forces regularly used to account for three-quarters of the electorate. Similar trends seem to have affected the political systems in France and Italy, where for decades the vote was divided between the centre-right and centre-left blocs.
The political-electoral landscape has been modified by abstentionism, the rise of new populist formations, the major advance of far-right forces, and in some cases the consolidation of a left alternative to neoliberal policiesa topic that deserves separate consideration. The first of these phenomena is mainly attributable to the growing detachment from political parties in general. The second has developed on the crest of the anti-EU wave.
New ‘post-ideological’ movements have arisen in recent years, guided by general denunciation of the corrupt existing system, by the myth of online democracy as a guarantee of rank-and-file participation in contrast to the usual practice of political parties, and by euro-scepticism. Some of the political forces recently established are the Pirate Party in Sweden, the Five Star Movement of the comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, Alternative for Germany, The River in Greece, and the movement of the right-wing populist former singer, Pawel Kukiz in Poland,. During the same period, the already existing United Kingdom Independence Party has boosted its presence on the basis of similar political platforms.
In many European countries, xenophobic, nationalist or openly neo-fascist parties have made big advances as the effects of economic crisis have made themselves felt. In some cases, they have modified their political discourse, replacing the classical left-right division with a new polarization specific to contemporary society: what Marine Le Pen calls the conflict ‘between those at the top and those at the bottom’. In this, far-right candidates are supposed to represent the ‘people’ against the elites who favour an all-powerful free market.
The ideological profile of these political movements has also changed. The racist component is often shifted to the background and economic issues brought to the fore. The blind, restrictive opposition to EU immigration policies is taken a stage further by playing on the ‘war among the poor’, even more than discrimination based on skin colour or religious affiliation. In a context of high unemployment and grave social conflict, xenophobia is raised through propaganda asserting that migrants take jobs from local workers and that the latter should have priority in employment, social services and welfare entitlements.
This change of course has certainly played a role in the recent successes of the National Front in France. In Italy, meanwhile, the Northern League has also undergone a metamorphosis. It was born demanding independence for northern Italy but has recently turned itself into a national party, with a ‘no to the euro’, anti-immigrant platform. As a result, its electoral score has climbed dramatically. A coalition agreement between these two parties led to the formation, in June, of a Europe of Nations and Freedom group at the European Parliament. This also includes established political parties, which have for some time been demanding withdrawal from the Euro, a revision of the treaties on immigration and a return to national sovereignty. Among the most representative forces in this respect are the Austrian Freedom Party and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, which both occupy third position in their national polities.
Far-right forces have made important advances in various parts of the continent. In Switzerland, the Swiss People&’s Party, which distinguished itself in the past by advocating a referendum (actually approved in 2009) for a ban on new minarets, pulled off its best-ever result and came first in the elections in October. In every Scandinavian country, too, they are already an established reality.
In the homeland par excellence of the ‘Nordic model’, the Swedish Democrats, which arose in 1988 through a fusion of neo-Nazi groups, emerged as the third largest political force in the last elections. In Denmark and Finland, the Danish People&’s Party and the True Finns have scored even more surprising results and joined the government majorities, becoming the second largest parties in their respective countries. Finally, in Norway, the Progress Party has entered government for the first time.
The Right has not made its breakthroughs only through classical reactionary instruments, such as campaigns against globalization, the arrival of new asylum-seekers and the spectre of the ‘Islamization’ of society. Above all, they have called for social policies traditionally associated with the Left, at a time when the Social Democrats were opting for public spending cuts. The rightist ‘welfare’ is of a different kind, however: no longer universal, inclusive and solidaristic but based on the principle that rights and services should be offered only to members of the already existing national community.
The radical Right has also managed to reorganize in a number of East European countries. In Poland, the populist Law and Justice party won the legislative elections in October, and obtained the first absolute majority of seats in parliament since the end of the Cold War. Unlike the usual appeals to nationalism and ultra-conservative religious values, its economic programme highlights promises to increase social spending, to improve wage levels and to lower the retirement age. It is a left platform, in a country where social democracy is confined to a small residual space, after its pursuit of policies that hit the weakest layers of society. The most alarming case in this part of Europe, however, is Hungary. After the Socialist Party government had imposed severe austerity measures at the behest of the Troika, causing a lurch into deflation, the Hungarian Civic Union/Fidesz took over the reins of office and, in 2012, introduced a new Constitution with authoritarian overtones that took the country a perilously long way from the rule of law.
As if that were not enough, the Movement for a Better Hungary has grown dramatically since 2010. Unlike most of the radical Right in Western Europe and Scandinavia, it is a classical examplenow dominant in the Eastof a far-right formation that uses hatred of minorities (especially Roma), anti-Semitism and anti-communism as major instruments of propaganda and action.
This survey is not complete without the neo-Nazi organizations that have spread in some parts of Europe. The biggest of them is Golden Dawn, which has become the third political force in Greece. In recent years, therefore, the parties of the populist, nationalist or neo-fascist Right have considerably broadened their support in almost every part of Europe. In many cases, they have proved capable of hegemonizing political debate and sometimes entered government in a coalition with the more moderate Right. It is a disturbing epidemic, to which it is certainly impossible to respond without fighting the virus that caused it in the first place the Troika’s neoliberal mantra still so fashionable in Brussels.