Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rising Popularity of the European Far-Right

The first round of the recently held French presidential election has once more proven to be a reminder of the rising popularity of the far right in European politics. Marine Le Pen, who added a youthful image to her father's party, National Front (Front National) won over 6.4 million votes, nearly 18% of the total. It was far better than her father's best and shocking performance a decade ago. In 2002, the Jean-Marie Le Pen took 16.86% of the vote and came second in the first round of the election. In the second round, he took more than 5.5 million votes (17.79%). Ten years later, Ms. Le Pen may have costed Nicolas Sarkozy the victory of the first round. His attempts to attract her voters seems to have been totally unsuccessful. Although Ms. Le Pen was expected to emerge in the third place, this performance is much better than expected.

The increasing popularity of the far right has been a growing phenomena of the European politics during the past few years. The extreme manifestations of this has been the growth of various militant groups and individuals resorting to violence. Although Anders Behring Breivik, the mass murderer of Norway is an extreme case, it is by no means the only one. A further alarming fact is that although Breivik horrified many with his killings, it had not stopped the European electorates increasingly tilting to the right. The far right Progress Party suffered a setback in the local elections held in Norway just two months after the Breivik massacres. But, it seems to be an isolated setback in the European context.

Usually, the parties of the extreme right were considered taboo by other political parties and were not even asked to join in forming coalition governments. But, from the 1990s, their increasing popularity has made it hard to ignore them. The legal far right has been very strong in Austria, Italy and Norway among other countries for more than a decade. Recently, far right political parties have made significant inroads in the Netherlands, Finland and several other countries. Furthermore, it should be noted that in both Austria and Norway, the far right political parties are now getting more votes than the main traditional right wing parties.

Another important tactic used by the far right is furthering their ideas with the help of the traditional right wing. This can be effectively done at a time of a crisis such as this when Europe is in an economic recession. Furthermore, there has been an increasing level of anti immigration sentiment associated with economic woes and islamophobia after 9/11. These have been the main vehicles through which the far right has exploded to the political arena.

Good examples for this have been the Minaret ban in Switzerland and the face-veil ban in several countries. In the former, while the main parties opposed the idea, the far right propagated it. In the subsequent referendum, the Swiss electorate defied the main political parties and approved the ban. However, in the face-veil banning crisis, it was the mainstream parties which put the proposal forward. For the far right, it was an god-sent opportunity.

The recent French election saw a battle between the moderate right and the far right for the right wing votes with Ms. Le Pen accusing Sarkozy of stealing her ideas a number of times. This has ultimately cost Sarkozy. He had to tread a very dangerous path and had to appease both moderate and far right voters. Too much far right sentiment may have alienated the moderates. Ms. Le Pen was spared of Sarkozy's troubles as she would be appealing to the far right only. Her aim was to convince the moderates that the nation is at a crisis where draconian measures are required. While many would not approve of the 'draconian measure' taken by Breivik, there are enough supporters for the far right to create new political realities. Both the more moderate and the left wing politicians have something to be alarmed of at this juncture. If the economic crisis does not resolve soon, the far right is bound to make further inroads at least in some regions.

It should be remembered that the rise to power of the far right in the inter war period was associated with the economic depression of 1929. without it, Hitler would not have come to power. Also, it should be remembered that Nazis of Germany and some other groups had an anti-Jewish platform then. Today, the far right has a more broader 'anti-immigration' platform. Furthermore, the far right parties came to power with the assistance of the moderate right wing in the 1920s and 1930s. The moderate right of today should be very careful not to make the same mistake.

Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen, "Marine Le Pen at the 1st of May National Front's rally in honour of Joan of Arc, Paris.", From Wikimedia Commons.

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