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The far right takes root in Europe

Will far-right populism become a mainstream view in European politics? France’s upcoming election will offer a first test.
French far-right Front National (FN) party President Marine Le Pen gives a new year’s address to the press at her party campaign headquarters "L’Escale" in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)
French far-right Front National (FN) party President Marine Le Pen gives a new year's address to the press at her party campaign headquarters "L'Escale" in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)
French far-right Front National (FN) party President Marine Le Pen gives a new year’s address to the press at her party campaign headquarters “L’Escale” in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

“Clearly Donald Trump’s victory is an additional stone in the building of a new world designed to replace the old one.”

These words, spoken in a November television interview by far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, are either deeply chilling or positively hopeful, depending on your political point of view. For a growing portion of the historically left-leaning French electorate they would seem to be the latter. For while it still looks unlikely that Le Pen’s Front National will win in France’s upcoming spring election, her increased influence—and the influence of other far-right leaders like her across Europe—has become undeniable in recent months. Once dismissed as a fringe party of xenophobic nationalists, the FN is now a political force to be reckoned with in France, a country where mainstream opposition to immigration and diversity have now become the norm.

A Pew Research Centre survey across 10 European countries in 2016 notes that those in France who have a favourable view of the Front National are also more likely to have negative feelings about immigrants, refugees and Muslims than the average French person. Additionally, these same voters are more likely to be opposed to globalization and EU membership.

None of this is surprising. But what is different is the way such beliefs have begun to creep into the mainstream of French politics as well. François Fillon, who until very recently was seen as the lead contender for the presidency, vowed to stand up for democracy and put a stop to multiculturalism when he won the Republican leadership last year. His party—also the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy—occupies the traditionally moderate position of centre-right. But as Fillon takes on both François Hollande’s Socialistes and Le Pen’s FN, there has been a significant shift in the Republican position on diversity and immigration. According to the Pew study, a full 45 per cent of the French public agrees with roughly three-quarters of Front National supporters that refugees from Iraq and Syria pose a major social and economic danger to France. And while half of Le Pen’s supporters report an unfavourable view of Muslims, the study found that a significant minority of the general French public—29 per cent—share the feeling.

As Bruce Stokes, global director of economic attitudes at the Pew Centre recently noted of the European study, “on most, but notably not all issues relating to the ‘other’ in French society, FN sympathizers are far more negative and worried. But the anti-diversity sentiment among Republicans bears watching.”

With the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and, most recently, Berlin marking a so-called “new normal” state of unease in the major capitals of Europe, the election in France will be seen as the bellwether for the rest of Europe. Will far-right populism become a mainstream view in Europe?

In some parts of the Continent, it already has. In Poland and Hungary, the Pew report shows, there is now little difference between the views of the far-right parties and general public opinion on issues of diversity and immigration.

While in Austria, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was narrowly defeated last month, a new anti-establishment populism has successfully taken hold in other parts of the continent—most notably the U.K. and Italy, both of which saw leaders forced to resign last year after dramatic and unexpected referendum results.

Recent polls have suggested that in the Netherlands, the far-right party led by Geert Wilders—a politician recently convicted of inciting racial hatred—could win the majority of seats when Dutch voters go to the polls in March.

Germany, the most powerful economy in Europe, will hold its own election in September. While pro-immigration Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely expected to win again, her lead is looking less comfortable in light of recent events. Two terrorist attacks combined with Merkel’s controversial decision to welcome one million refugees within Germany’s borders have resulted in public outcry that will undoubtedly follow her to the polls.

The French election, which generally comprises two separate votes (first a general, then a run-off) will take place in April and May. At present, the frontrunner is Fillon, although a recent poll shows his approval rating lagging well behind the centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former finance minister under Hollande. This splitting of the middle ground could potentially spell good news for Le Pen and the FN, who are at present expected to finish in second place.

While the political needle has certainly shifted in Europe, the next year of elections will determine whether burgeoning far-right public opinion has reached its peak. In the meantime, the only thing France and her neighbours can be certain of is the fact of uncertainty itself.