The rise of the far right in Europe

Defying predictions, nationalist parties are tightening their networks and coalescing into dangerous alliances


In August 2010, dozens of far-right politicians from across Europe flew to Tokyo for a week of plotting and scheming. They were invited by Japan’s right-wing Issuikai group, famous for its denial of Japanese war crimes during the Nanjing Massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were murdered, and tens of thousands raped, by Japanese soldiers. The occasion was a conference: “The Future of Nationalist Movements.”

By all accounts, it was a success. A who’s who of European nationalists showed up: delegates from the British Nationalist Party (BNP), Jobbik (Hungary), Tricolour Flame (Italy), Attack (Bulgaria), Freedom (Ukraine) and Flemish Interest (Belgium). Jean-Marie Le Pen—former president of France’s Muslim-bashing, European Union-trashing Front National—gave the keynote address. The congress, said an Issuikai spokesperson, was focused on “how we can protect the national identity in our respective countries and co-operate to win the battle against globalization.”

The last few years have been good to Europe’s far right. In 2010, extreme parties in the Netherlands, Hungary and Sweden gave powerful electoral showings. Soon after, Austria’s Freedom Party raked in over 25 per cent of state election votes and doubled its parliamentary seats. That momentum has not waned. “I would never have imagined that demons long believed to have been banished would return,” wrote European Parliament President Martin Schulz in 2012. “But simple-minded populism is once again gaining ground.” This year in Norway—just two years after a far-right militant named Anders Behring Breivik massacred 69 people on the island of Utøya—the Progress Party that once inspired him won almost a quarter of the national vote.

But this is not, as some observers claim, the 1930s redux—for these are not the same far-right parties. Rather, much of Europe’s radical right has broken with its bellicose past. Today’s far-right parties are more polished and articulate, more welcoming of mainstream agenda points (like same-sex marriage and welfare assistance) and more committed to playing by democratic rules. In some cases, their goals have changed too; many far-right parties have sidelined the fight for electoral seats in favour of projects meant to push mainstream parties rightward. In places like Britain, conservative parties have taken the bait. Earlier this year, the U.K. Home Office dispatched government vans to drive around London, emblazoned with the message, “In the U.K. illegally? Go home or face arrest”—in what many say was a nasty concession to far-right forces. For this reason, the new far right appears all the more insidious. Experts speak of a continental “contagion from the right.” In Hungary and Switzerland, they worry about democratic collapse.

Europe’s nationalists—by definition, domestically focused—have even shuffled toward a common foreign policy. In June, a far-right delegation travelled on a fact-finding mission to Syria, which included a visit to Marja Square, where suicide bombers had reportedly just killed 14 people. Later, the BNP’s Nick Griffin praised Hezbollah for helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to recapture the rebel-held city of al-Qusayr and described Beirut as “less alien than the streets of London.”

And then there’s the collaborating. Ever since the ’90s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen started the EuroNat alliance of nationalist parties, far-right parties have been talking. In recent years, however, their networks have tightened. In mid-November, Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National and Geert Wilders of Holland’s Party for Freedom announced an alliance meant to break the European parliament from within. “This is a historical day,” Wilders declared, after finalizing his pact with Le Pen in The Hague. “Today is the beginning of the liberation from the European elite, the monster in Brussels.” Le Pen and Wilders will now extend the invitation to like-minded parties across the continent.

This is not what history predicted. “Historically, far-right groups have been pretty bad at getting together,” explains Matthew Goodwin of the Chatham House, a U.K. think tank. “They are not like socialists, geared to international objectives. Parties on the right are intrinsically nationalist.” But they’re working on it. And national borders have proven permeable. Far-right parties attend each other’s conferences and demonstrations. They hold joint meetings. And they follow each other on Twitter. The European Parliament funds a number of far-right political alliances—to the tune of hundreds of thousands of euros—since they contain elected representatives who are eligible for EU dollars.

Some ironies reveal themselves immediately: ultra-nationalist parties who rail against “internationalism” are building international ties; anti-EU groups are organizing on the EU’s dime. “Year by year, Jobbik is extending its international activities,” Márton Gyöngyösi, a Jobbik parliamentarian, told Maclean’s. And it’s not just political parties that are collaborating. Last March, a number of thuggish Defence Leagues (English, Danish, Swedish, etc.) gathered at a summit in Aarhus, Denmark.

More than ever, Europe’s far-right is coalescing into muscular alliances. That can only help them in next year’s European Parliament elections, in which far-right gains are expected. Of course, this doesn’t mean the old days of street-level strong-arming have passed. Two months ago, a member of Greece’s Golden Dawn party stabbed a man to death in an Athens suburb—ushering in a state crackdown on the group. (Though Golden Dawn MPs have been arrested—and their leader formally charged with belonging to a criminal organization—the party is still Greece’s third-largest.) “The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated,” warned a recent report from the European Police office.

That has many commentators invoking the Second World War, and dusting off the old George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But while some are spurred to action, others are bitterly questioning what the fight is actually about. Among them are British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who argued respectively that multiculturalism has “failed” and “utterly failed.”

Forty-one years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the Front National in France. A lawyer and former Foreign Legion volunteer, Le Pen quickly attracted a clique of fascists, neo-fascists, reactionary Catholics, former Vichy collaborators and colonial nostalgics. Over four decades, he would stand in five presidential elections—and serve numerous terms in France’s National Assembly and in the European Parliament. In his spare time, Le Pen made puns about Nazi gas chambers, dismissed the Holocaust as “a mere detail” and produced a musical record of Third Reich ballads. He doesn’t like Muslims either, and was convicted in 2006 of inciting racial hatred against them.

Two years ago, his daughter Marine took over the party. A quick-tounged lawyer, Marine shed her father’s crude racism and thuggish entourage. She presented herself as a France-loving patriot: not buoyed by hate, but responsive to lurking threats. (She took pains to identify the Holocaust as the 20th century’s greatest tragedy.) Marine wants to curb immigration, not abolish it. She touts protectionism, but not economic isolation. And she replaced talk of “race” with that of “culture.” In her insistence, she is not “waging war against Islam,” but rather guarding against “the Islamization of French society.”

It’s a popular mantra. “I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam,” the Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders has insisted. A recent report from the U.K.’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation argues that, across Europe, far-right groups are softening their tone: ditching racial nationalism for a kind of cultural nationalism—in which it is not whites that need protecting, but rather Europeanness.

The younger Le Pen picks her battles adeptly, stressing issues of national security. And she wins them. In 2010, in a now-infamous interview with French broadcasters, she compared Muslims praying in the streets to France’s occupation by Germany during the Second World War. A year later, France banned street prayers and became the first European country to prohibit face-covering niqabs in public—in an effort to appease Le Pen, many argue. According to a recent poll, Le Pen boasts a 32 per cent popularity rating: an eight per cent lead on French President Hollande.

Europe’s far-right has come in waves. The first parties rode the tide of 1930s fascism, often drawing support from neo-Nazi networks. They brought violence and uniforms and salutes, and a deep mistrust of democratic institutions. Another wave appeared in the mid-’80s, with Europe’s surge toward union and a massive influx of immigrants. This new far-right was anti-tax, anti-EU and wholly populist. And more ideological than its forebear. It argued for ethnopluralism: essentially, the view that every culture is valid but should be separated by borders.

And now a “third wave.” Today’s far-right is deeply steeped in the notion of a “cultural threat”—but encased in a firm avowal of democracy. Islam-bashing, for instance, is couched as a discussion of human rights. Euroskepticism is linked to support for national private industry. It is also politically savvy. New far-right parties are young and charismatic, popular on Facebook and Twitter.

Anger and mistrust have not been dampened, but rather been channelled into the democratic system. For instance, in recent years the Sweden Democrats—whose slogan is “Keep Sweden Swedish,” and whose goal is to reduce immigration by 90 per cent—has distanced itself from its 1980s neo-Nazism, which allowed the party to win parliamentary seats in 2010.

Of course, in some places, the new veneer wears thin. A video leaked by the Swedish tabloid Expressen showed the party’s spokesman for economic policy exchanging banter with a Swede of Kurdish origins. “This isn’t your country, it’s my country,” he charged: “Don’t f–k with Swedes.”

Europe is indeed experiencing a great rush of immigrants, many of whom are Muslim. Greece and Italy, where clashes with immigrants are often public and violent, receive disproportionately high numbers of Europe’s illegal immigrants. Many newcomers arrive via Turkey, or are Arab Spring refugees. This has led to a profound belief, among right-wing elements, that their national culture is under attack. Anti-immigration policies have followed.

But settled Muslims are targeted too. Far-right parties paint Islam as inherently intolerant, and Muslims as incapable of integration. In 2011, far-right groups gathered in Paris for an International Conference on the Islamization of Our Countries. “What’s at stake,” Oskar Freysinger of the Swiss People’s Party told the crowd, “is your mortal soul.” In recent years, far-right groups have introduced new terms into the European lexicon: like “creeping sharia” and “stealth jihad” and “demographic jihad.”

It has also introduced the term “counter-jihad.” So-called counter-jihad groups began popping up several years ago, some as street movements with a penchant for a fracas. These groups speak of an impending war with Islam. The continent-wide Stop Islamization of Europe (SIOE) network has mobilized otherwise disparate actors for what it describes as Europe’s existential struggle. Several popular blogs provide theoretical backbone to like-minded agitators, such as Jihad Watch and Gates of Vienna, whose name references “the siege of Vienna in 1683 [when] Islam seemed poised to overrun Christian Europe.” Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer, found inspiration in many such blogs, from which he borrowed extensively while penning his 1,518-page manifesto, “2083: A European declaration of independence.”

The counter-jihad narrative is heavily conspiratorial. SIOE’s Danish president Anders Gravers writes: “Muslims have many allies in the European establishment, in politics, religion and the judiciary. Together with our establishment they suppress our free speech and stealthily introduce sharia law.” It’s a theory that ticks all the boxes: clandestine plots, fifth columns and government collusion. But, bit by bit, the movement is showing its cultural transcendence. “It’s largely still a white movement,” explains Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, head of research and information at the U.K.-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. “But because the ideology is not technically race-based, there is space for other races to be involved. If you don’t like Muslims and you think that Islam is inherently against Western values, there is a place for you in this movement.”

Frequently, critiques of Islam are cloaked in debates about women’s headscarves, or mosque construction, or halal meat—and so are linked with the likes of feminists and city planners and PETA activists. (Groups such as the British National Party—which has failed to extend its reach beyond lower-class, angry old men and neo-Nazis—are now all but extinct.)

This flexibility allows the far-right to embrace some unlikely bedfellows—like European Jews. Newer far-right parties, explains Vidhya Ramalingam, project coordinator at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, “have been very open in their support for Israel.” Indeed, Geert Wilders has a serious case of philo-Semitism. He has reportedly visited Israel some 40 times, and speaks of “the special feeling of solidarity that I always get when I land at Ben Gurion International Airport.” (He is also regularly photographed wearing a kippah.) Far-right street movements have also allied with small radical Jewish groups, like the Jewish Defense League. “Anti-Semitism,” says Ramalingam, “is not a convenient enemy anymore.”

Even the English Defence League (EDL)—famous for parading its hundreds of members through the streets of Muslim-populated areas, their rallying cry, in hoc signo vinces, “under this sign you shall conquer”—has changed its rhetoric. The EDL portrays itself as a human-rights body, an ally of gays and Jews and women. “In my town, half of my best mates are immigrants,” EDL co-founder Tommy Robinson recently told Maclean’s. “Their moms and dads are Ghanaian, Kenyan. Everyone loves England. Everyone gets along just fine. Except for Muslims.”

We still don’t see far-right prime ministers or presidents. But that may be just the point. For the most part, far-right parties know that they’re not going to win parliamentary majorities—and they’re no longer really trying to. Rather, their objective is to gain enough support—to create sufficient noise, to test enough taboos—to shift the entire mainstream debate. Academics in the field speak of a “mainstreaming” of far-right discourse. Across the continent, European leaders are talking tough on immigration and Islam.

Take Italy, where the country’s first black government minister—the Congolese-Italian Cécile Kyenge—has been compared to an orangutan by colleagues, pelted with bananas, and accused by elected politicians of wanting to impose “tribal traditions” on Italy. Kyenge recently received death threats before visiting a region where the far-right Northern League party is active; a local politician wrote on Facebook that Kyenge should be raped so that she could understand the pain felt by victims of rape by immigrants. In January, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi forged an alliance with the Northern League, which won 12.7 per cent of the national vote in 2010. Northern League seeks more autonomy for northern Italy and is also anti-immigrant, anti-statist and opposed to social policies like same-sex marriage.

Sarkozy may have been a harbinger of this. In 2007, he mulled over the idea of creating a “ministry for immigration and national identity.” Later, he pledged to halve immigration and mandate labelling on halal meat—in what Reuters called “a bid to claw back rightist voters from Le Pen.” And his government launched a scheme to deport thousands of Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania. The move drew censure from the European Commission and Pope Benedict XVI. “This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War,” bristled European Commission commissioner Viviane Reding.

Now many far-right parties do look poised to make electoral gains. Next year, “we are likely to see the number of far-right and radical political parties increase in the European Parliament,” says Matthew Goodwin of the U.K.’s Chatham House. “We will also see more explicitly neo-Nazi parties in parliament. In lots of places, we will talk next spring about record gains.” Balázs Dénes, of the Open Society Initiative’s Budapest office, refers to Hungary’s democracy as “endangered.” The country’s Jobbik party (Movement for a Better Hungary) shows no indications of tamping down its rhetoric. It is known for its blatant neo-fascism, racism, anti-Semitism (Jobbik spokesman Gyöngyösi recently called Jews a “security risk” and recommended that “all Jews living in Hungary be registered”); it has diplomatic ties with Iran, is chummy with Russia, and exhibits hostility toward foreign-owned corporations. The party emerged in 2003, gaining just 2.2 per cent of the vote in 2006. By 2010, it claimed 16.7 per cent support, and became the third-largest party in the National Assembly. It now holds a sobering 43 seats (out of 386) in the Hungarian parliament. Jobbik’s electoral popularity has ebbed somewhat recently, but that doesn’t mean the situation is reversing in Hungary—for that would be to overlook the ruling party, Fidesz.

Fidesz has borrowed heavily from Jobbik. In 2012, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enacted his new constitution, which refers to Hungary as a Christian nation and strips some 300 faiths and religious institutions of their legal status. “More than 200 changed laws basically re-regulated everything from the field of education to criminal justice and law enforcement,” explains Dénes, who identifies “limitation of the powers of the constitutional court” as the most alarming change. The president of the European Parliament, Schulz, warned: “The European Parliament is seriously concerned about Hungary with respect to the exercise of democracy.”

The difficult truth is that in some cases, far-right groups are responding to real concerns and capitalizing on real malaise, albeit with noxious methods. France does have security problems related to itinerant Roma groups. Islamic radicalism is a threat in some places. New immigrants continue to flood into countries hit by the euro crisis, which struggle to accommodate them. Extrajudicial sharia courts exist, and sometimes issue odious rulings (like asking women to return to violent marriages). Mainstream parties often shy away from high-level discussions of national culture, especially when it comes to Muslims. That leaves far-right parties to start the conversation and define its terms.

It’s likely that not all of this is new—but rather, the remains of long-standing grievances that were buried under political correctness or election-time politicking. For instance, in a 2011 speech in Munich, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that “when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious—frankly, even fearful—to stand up to them.” Right-wing parties have chipped away at that fear.

The main challenge now is levels of engagement. Should mainstream politicians debate their far-right colleagues? Should politicial extremists be banned outright? Internationally, should more leaders speak out against the likes of Hungary’s Victor Orbán? Some governments have adopted cordon sanitaires, whereby mainstream parties refuse dealings with far-right elements. Jamie Bartlett, head of the violence and extremism programme at the U.K.’s Demos think tank, cautions against strict silence: Far-right parties “already believe that they aren’t allowed to express themselves properly, that political correctness is preventing their right to express their views. [This] will annoy and alienate them deeply.”

As it stands, and with European Parliament elections looming, far-right parties are busy making their case that Europe—as an economic entity and multicultural project—has had its day. “Far-right is a strange expression,” mused Luzi Stamm of the Swiss People’s Party, in a recent interview. “Our party has a very simple thought behind it: a majority of our people within our borders. This might look, from the outside, as nationalistic. But I think it is rather democratic.”

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