It’s been quite a month for the populist right in Europe: Marine Le Pen, the Front National (FN) candidate in the French presidential elections, took 17.9 per cent of the vote in the first round; Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom (PVV) brought down the Dutch government, forcing new elections in September. Yet the headlines have been more sensationalist than accurate.
Le Pen’s rise matters – but not because it denotes any sort of residual fascism or, I would argue, an obsession with immigration. The same goes for the PVV and Wilders: the latter brought down the Dutch coalition not through any anti-immigration stunt or policy stance but by refusing to back the government’s Brussels-dictated budget cuts to social care for the elderly. These parties have a very strong xenophobic streak but they have diversified: Wilders’s attacks on Muslims and Poles vie for attention with anti-European rhetoric; Le Pen focused as much on bankers and Brussels as she did on immigrants. The popularity of Wilders and Le Pen has causes that are far broader than the issue of immigration.
Le Pen’s vote isn’t exactly “historic” in the sense of numerically earth-shattering – the FN has reached 17 per cent in the past. Yet it suggests that voters have solidified their allegiance to the FN beyond the leader and regardless of the political offer: Le Pen pulled a score similar to her father’s (within one percentage point) on the back of a relatively lacklustre campaign.
On the other hand, many analysts (myself included) underestimated the level of support for Le Pen: the FN electorate remains volatile and a little bashful. The picture that emerges is one of “reluctant radicals” – their support is still begrudgingly or secretly granted.
This contrasts sharply with support for Wilders. Interviews and questionnaires reveal that PVV supporters feel perfectly at ease with their political choice and the Dutch mainstream seems increasingly prone to agreeing.
Wilders’s latest maverick political stance makes for interesting speculation here: do his actions, in essence, complete the process of “mainstreaming”
– is he a politician like any other, able to bring down a coalition government on a social care issue? Or will he, in a land still attached to compromise and consensus, be seen as too stubborn for the good of the country?
The vote for Le Pen is, in part, a xenophobic vote – anti-Muslim and anti-immigration. But its roots are much more complex: it is motivated by a rejection and mistrust of the elite both left and right, a rejection of European technocracy and the European consensus, and a deep fear of globalisation.
These same points apply to Wilders – with 15.5 per cent of the vote in the last elections and 24 seats in parliament, Wilders tapped deep into the resentments generated by a Dutch system that has struggled since the 1970s. Forty years down the line, Wilders is the expression of a frustration with an elite that has still not come to terms with economic change, with the consequences of diversity, and that is both depicted and perceived by the PVV and its supporters as self-serving, disconnected, inefficient and corrupt. The striking thing however, in the Netherlands, is the general willingness to treat the PVV as symptomatic of a deep and understandable unease in Dutch society and its voters as expressing a legitimate set of concerns that would otherwise remain unaddressed by the mainstream.
Le Pen’s score is important in a final respect. In the first instance, it is forcing Nicolas Sarkozy to toughen his anti-immigration rhetoric in an effort to capture first-round FN voters: a manoeuvre that is likely to deliver little and potentially backfire. The transfer of votes from Le Pen to Hollande is also striking: while less likely to translate into anti-immigration rhetoric on behalf of the Socialists, it is nevertheless revealing that 27 per cent of Le Pen voters are considering supporting Hollande. Le Pen’s score is critical in terms of the leverage it gives the FN against the mainstream right-wing Union for a Popular Movement in the parliamentary elections in June. Her support in certain parts of France means that in some areas the FN will be, as she has already begun to claim, the “main party of the right”.
The temptation for the mainstream right will be to agree to electoral alliances that, if shunned in the name of non- co-operation with the far right, will split the vote and deliver victory for the left. This was a scenario that occurred in the regional elections of 1998 and which could repeat itself.
The symbolism of such a move would be colossal – the FN would enter mainstream politics much as the Italian post-fascist National Alliance did in 2001 after a set of alliances with the mainstream right; and much as Wilders did in 2010. It is perhaps that – and the oxygen of legitimacy it would grant – which we should fear more than the rest.
Catherine Fieschi is director of the think tank Counterpoint