Portrait | On the right, but not a skinhead or swastika in sight


Portrait | On the right, but not a skinhead or swastika in sight

Much of the success of European right-wing parties is because they repositioned themselves to become acceptable to a larger number of voters. But, says WILLEM KEMPEN, their fascist roots are not always deeply hidden.

TOMORROW and on Sunday, the French will vote in the second round of their parliamentary elections. In the first round, Marine le Pen's Rassemblement National (National Rally, formerly the National Front) performed the best of all parties with 33%; President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance could manage only 22%. Over the past week, moderate and left-wing parties have scrambled to form a coalition to try to halt Le Pen's advance.

But while Le Pen is riding the wave and is visible everywhere campaigning for votes, Macron has kept a low profile. This is deliberate, as his unexpected decision to call snap elections has played into Le Pen's hands. Macron, as a Renaissance official anonymously told a French newspaper, “underestimated how much the public is put off by his personality". An ally of Renaissance is even advocating a strategy of “de-Macronisation" to try to salvage things.

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This term resonates with a strategy that has been successfully applied by Le Pen's party: dédiabolisation — distancing the party from its image as something diabolical or evil — to make it acceptable to more voters.

This harks back to one of the nicknames for Jean-Marie le Pen, founder of the National Front and Marine's father and political mentor, when he still led the party: “Le Diable de la République" — the Devil of the Republic. It wasn't undeserved, because he was a crude racist who often proclaimed that the Holocaust has been exaggerated and who unashamedly encouraged discrimination against French Muslims. You also don't need to dig deep into the National Front's roots to unearth links to fascist organisations like Jeune Nation (Young Nation) and Ordre Nouveau (New Order).

Le Pen kicked her father out of the party in 2015 when some of his statements became too much of an embarrassment, and she often says she doesn't share his antisemitic views. And her close confidant, the lawyer and deputy leader of National Rally, Louis Aliot, is of Algerian-Jewish descent.

Louis Aliot and Marine le Pen of National Rally.
Louis Aliot and Marine le Pen of National Rally.

Le Pen is also more careful not to put her foot in it, as she did in 2017 when she said France doesn't share “any responsibility" for the infamous Vélodrome d'Hiver incident in 1942 when the French police, under Nazi instruction, rounded up 13,000 Jews in Paris before they were sent to Auschwitz.

This kind of statement doesn't necessarily make her a Nazi but it fits into the broader pattern of a party that would rather deny France's history of colonialism and exploitation of slave labour than accept any shared responsibility for it.

The same kind of sentiment prevails in the other parties to the right of centre that are achieving growing success at the ballot box in Europe's established democracies: Geert Wilders' Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands; Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel's Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany); Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy); Santiago Abascal's Vox in Spain; and in a way Nigel Farage's Reform UK.

But while these parties have many things in common — broadly speaking, they are nationalist movements that say their “own people's" culture must be protected against the influence of especially Muslim immigrants — there are also important differences when it comes to things like economic, agricultural and social policy, measures to protect the environment, Nato and the war in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, the European Union, and democracy itself.

On the political spectrum, they range from slightly right of centre to borderline fascist, but without exception they are careful to present themselves as decent, civilised and a voice for “ordinary people", definitely not as a bunch of hoodlums in jackboots. The leadership is typically eloquent and well-groomed and often young and female — no longer the kind of people who would immediately stand out AWB-style at a political meeting or in a parliamentary session.

This approach has another advantage: it makes it easier to form alliances with more moderate parties in a political environment where absolute majorities are becoming scarcer.

A good example is Meloni, who was 45 when she became Italy's first female prime minister in 2022. Her political activism began when she joined the Fronte della Gioventù (youth wing) of the neo-fascist Italian Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in 1992. This movement later became the Alleanza Nazionale (AN), which had its roots in post-war followers of Mussolini. Later still, it became Fratelli D'Italia, whose flame logo in the colours of the Italian flag is similar to that of the MSI and the AN. Yet Fratelli D'Italia is also the political home of many former Christian Democrats and others who cannot be considered any kind of fascist.

The same applies to some extent to Alternative für Deutschland and Vox in Spain. All three movements have created an acceptable image of far-right politics in countries where voters have for decades been allergic to anything that even remotely smelled of Mussolini, Hitler or Franco. But how did they do it?

The single biggest reason is the refugee crisis of 2015, when more than 1.3 million people applied for asylum in European countries; the most in a single year since World War 2. The asylum seekers were mostly from Syria due to the civil war there, but many also came from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Eritrea and the Balkan states. The influx was accompanied by fears about cultural and religious integration and increased pressure on social services. European voters demanded stricter border control and immigration policies, and the right-wing parties, in particular, promised answers.

Other factors also played a major role: the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, the economic disruption of the Covid pandemic, distrust in the political establishment, scepticism about European unity, globalisation and technological change, and resistance to social changes that often go against values established over centuries. Many of these can be opportunistically exploited by right-wing parties, but there are also many legitimate examples where Europeans have to live with EU directives on things like agricultural policy and alternative energy sources that are imposed on them from Brussels without proper consideration of the local situation.

At the same time, the right-wingers (if that is indeed always the best term to use) do not offer consistent answers to such questions. Some want more protectionism, others less. Some want a bigger role for the state, others smaller. And if you always want to look after “your own people" first, it's often difficult to work with someone in another country who wants to do the same for “their" people.

It's also not entirely true that traditionally conservative or right-wing parties are gaining the upper hand everywhere in Europe. The Tories, for instance, paid the price in yesterday's British election for 14 years of everything from Brexit to the idea that the governance of a modern state can be left to someone like Boris Johnson. Whether Labour will fare much better, and even whether it is still a “left-wing" party at all, remains to be seen.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that a larger number of voters — not just in Europe, but everywhere around the world — realise they cannot trust a political party that keeps pretending there are simple answers to complex questions.

♦ VWB ♦

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