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16 November 2015

Could the radical right benefit from the Paris attacks?

Increased fear of migration would be a political boon for the populist right. 

By Tim Wigmore

The passport of a Syrian refugee was found by the body of a dead suicide bomber outside the Stade de France. The man is believed to have passed through Greece in October. These chilling reports have already been seized upon by the radical right in France, Poland and beyond. They give a snapshot of how right-wing populists might stand to benefit from the public’s trepidation of Isis.

“France must immediately stop the entry of migrants on its territory,” reads a new statement from the Front National released today. It advocates the “immediate cessation” of the dispersion of migrants into France, contending that “our fears and warnings” about the consequences of admitting refugees from Syria are “embodied in these bloody attacks”.

Throughout Europe, parties of a similar bent have been saying much the same. “Islam and terror are the same,” tweeted Geert Wilders, the leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the country’s most popular party. The Polish government has rejected the EU’s migrant quota in the wake of the attacks, pulling out of its previous agreement to house several thousand Syrian refugees. Within hours of the Paris attacks, Ukip’s Suzanne Evans tweeted: “Does France closing borders imply terrorists are not ‘home grown’ but incomers taking advantage of current migrant crisis?” Douglas Carswell has also warned that “Islamism cannot be appeased”. Tonight Nigel Farage will say: “It is clear that the UK Muslim population are conflicted in their loyalties between loyalty to the UK, its way of life and its institutions and what elements within their organised faith are telling them.”

The populist right is already thriving throughout Europe. Since the financial crash in September 2008, the radical right has exploited concerns about immigration to cloak themselves as defenders of traditional European culture. More ingeniously, populists have argued that open borders irrevocably destroys the ability of national governments to fund the welfare state – and therefore that only they can defend the welfare state.

The characters change but the story stays the same. From the Front National and Party for Freedom in western Europe to the particularly unpalatable Jobbik in Hungary and even the Danish People’s Party and Swedish Democrats in the former social democrat nirvana of Scandinavia, populists throughout the continent are already on the rise.

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The Paris attacks could prove a further boon to the radical right, though they could also overreach. “Direct references to attacks by radical right figures can backfire, as voters may reject them as deeply insensitive efforts to politicise tragedy and stoke division,” says Rob Ford of Manchester University. While the Madrid train bombings in 2004, directed by an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell, did not lead to an upsurge of support for the radical right, the murder of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh in the same year was critical in the Netherlands’ embrace of Wilders.

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Yet as the Front National prepared for next month’s regional elections in France, they have a toxic cocktail of anti-immigration sentiment to exploit. The influx of refugees from Syria could increase economic insecurity, fuelling native European fears of their jobs being undercut, while their taxes are squandered on those who have not contributed to the system, including those they do not believe want to work. After the Paris attacks such resentment could be superseded by an even greater fear: that refugees hate the countries they have been welcomed to and wish to do their inhabitants mortal harm.

The French elections next month, then, are shaping up to be local elections with cross-continental significance. Should the Front National flounder, it will suggest that Europe’s reaction to the atrocities is not to embrace the politics of insularity and division, and that parties of the mainstream can succeed in articulating a positive vision of integrated European life in 2015 without coming across as weak on security matters. But if the French people are wooed by Marine Le Pen’s party, it will suggest that the horror of the Paris attacks present an opportunity for the radical right to gain further ground throughout Europe.