In the first round of the French regional elections on 6 December, the far-right Front National (FN) won the national vote and more than doubled its vote share from the same election five years ago, to 28 per cent across the 13 Continental regions. The result is further evidence of the strengthening appeal of the populist, anti-immigration right in France and beyond.
The characters change but the story, in essence, stays the same. Throughout Europe, the radical right is surging. The Law and Justice party, elected to government in Poland in October, is refusing to comply with the EU’s agreement on settling Syrian refugees and relentlessly denounces immigrants. Jobbik, with a scabrous anti-immigration, anti-Zionist platform, is the third most powerful party in Hungary today; the ruling Fidesz, which is led by Viktor Orbán, an ally of Vladimir Putin, is scarcely more acceptable. In Austria and the Netherlands, the far right has long been a central feature of the political scene. The Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats show that, even in the formerly social-democratic Scandinavia, right-wing populists are on the rise. The Alternative for Germany, which is opposed to the euro and immigration, is now Germany’s third most popular party. Fortunately, even though Ukip won 3.9 million votes in the general election (and one seat in the Commons), the populist right is weaker in the UK than in most other countries in Europe.
No mainstream parties have been immune to the challenge posed by the populist right. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that these insurgent parties and movements pose a particular threat to the centre left. The forces of free-market globalisation, immigration and the aftershocks of the global financial and eurozone crises have conspired to increase job insecurity and weaken confidence and social cohesion. Many people feel anger at professional political elites and seek solace in simple slogans and easy populism. Opportunistically, the radical right has argued that freedom of movement in the EU and weak immigration controls irrevocably destroy the solidarity on which welfare states depend.
The results in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie were a microcosm of the crisis of European social democracy. The area has a long industrial history and was once a stronghold of the ruling Parti Socialiste. But the FN triumph in the first round here pushed the Socialists into third place; the party subsequently withdrew from the second round (which is to be held on 13 December), imploring its voters to support the centre-right Républicains instead, to prevent the FN from winning.
But while the success of the populist right has deep roots, Marine Le Pen’s FN is benefiting from unease among many voters after the Paris attacks of 13 November. For years, the FN has railed against the Schengen Agreement – which allows for freedom of movement across the borders of continental EU states, but which has never been under greater strain – and the radicalisation of home-grown French Muslims. Her rhetoric can be as crass as that of Donald Trump, the US Republican presidential contender, who this week called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Since the atrocities in Paris last month, the FN has intensified its anti-Muslim rhetoric. It has called for an “immediate cessation” of the dispersion of migrants into France and says its warnings about the consequences of accepting refugees from Syria were “embodied in these bloody attacks”.
Ms Le Pen has blamed the Socialist government’s “crazy, undiscerning immigration policy” for the deaths in the Paris attacks. Her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who considers herself to be a modernising figure in the party, said Muslims “could not be given the same rank as the Catholic religion”.
At a time when mainstream politicians are struggling to respond to the threat from violent jihadis, such stridency undoubtedly contributed to the FN’s success. Yet, by sowing division between Muslims and everyone else, parties such as the FN, as well as powerful individuals such as the preposterous Donald Trump, are doing exactly what the jihadists want: they are helping to destroy what Isis calls the “grayzone”, in which most of us in the West happily live in plural, open, multiracial and multifaith societies. More than this, they are imperilling the cherished values of tolerance and freedom that the Allies fought the Second World War to preserve against barbarism.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires