The Push for Populism in Europe
If faced with the question “Who is Marine Le Pen?” most Americans would hazard a random guess or shrug blankly. However, Le Pen’s name is quite well known across the pond; in fact, she is one of the most dynamic and outspoken politicians in France today. Yet her influence — and that of the far-right political party she leads — extends beyond her country’s borders. Radical conservatives throughout the European Union are emulating her rise and shifting the continent’s ideological landscape in the process. Americans should take note.
Even to those who know little about European politics, Le Pen stands in stark contrast to her mainstream counterparts. For example, unlike French President François Hollande, Le Pen is neither a socialist nor a friend of the United States. Rather, she is the president of the Front National, a far-right party that opposes immigration, the European Union, and American imperialism. Before Le Pen took over her party’s leadership from her father a few years ago, the FN had a reputation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Since then, Le Pen has breathed new life into the party: According to a recent survey by TNS Sofres, 34 percent of the French people agree with the ideas of the FN, representing a 30-year high. Furthermore, 46 percent of those surveyed see Le Pen as “the face of patriotic conservatives, with traditional values.” The popularity of the FN, as well as that of its figurehead, has not been so robust in decades.
The renewed success of Le Pen’s brand of extreme conservatism comes at a critical moment for the European Union. The international financial crisis and its damaging effect on the euro have led to a heightened mood of “Euroscepticism,” or opposition to the European Union, in all parts of the continent. According to a 2013 study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “trust in the European Union has fallen from +10 to -22 percent in France … from +30 to -22 percent in Italy … and from -13 to -49 percent in the United Kingdom” since the onset of the euro crisis. Mistrust of the political and economic integration of Europe goes hand in hand with tension over growing Muslim immigration. France in particular has struggled to integrate its sizable Muslim population, as evidenced by the 2005 banlieue riots — a controversial ban on face covering — and the 2012 Toulouse terrorist attack. These events have given rise to much hostility among many French citizens; a 2012 survey found that 43 percent of French people perceived Islam as a threat to national identity. In light of this combination of Euroscepticism and Islamophobia, the FN’s fierce opposition to both the European Union and immigration has struck a chord with the French.
Despite its nationalism, the FN’s surge in popularity is having international ramifications. Parties with ideological similarities to the FN — ultraconservative, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic, populist — are rapidly growing throughout the European Union. Furthermore, this development is not limited to traditionally conservative countries: Far-right parties in Austria, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, and even Sweden are gaining traction. Cas Mudde, an expert writing for the Washington Post, predicts that this trend will be particularly relevant for the European Parliament elections in May. According to his projections, “11 far-right parties will (re-)gain entry into the next EP[,] [winning] between 40 and 50 seats.” To promote this outcome, Le Pen and Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), recently announced that they would work together to form a “European Alliance for Freedom” in the EP. Their goal is to form a caucus of radical right-wing parties within the EP in order to push their individual nationalistic agendas. By creating this caucus, Le Pen and Wilders hope to diminish the effectiveness of the EP, thereby undermining the influence of the European Union in their countries.
A recent referendum in Switzerland bears evidence of the new nationalist, conservative parties in Europe. The referendum, which garnered 50.3 percent of Swiss votes, severely restricts movement between Switzerland and the European Union. Although it is not part of the European Union, Switzerland allowed significant interactions with E.U. members and was a fixture in the European single market until the passage of the referendum. The law’s success is due to the efforts of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a right-wing populist organization with the same anti-immigration and nationalistic views of the FN. The SVP’s ability to cause such a stir, despite the resistance of more mainstream, established parties, suggests that rightists in the European Union could have a similar impact. Indeed, France’s principal conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), seems frustrated, if not worried, by the FN’s emergence. Speaking about Le Pen and her cohorts, Alain Juppé, a former prime minister of France and president of the UMP, recently said, “I’m afraid the results [of the EP elections] will be worrying for our parties and for Europe itself.” His consternation might be understandable: Le Pen expressed her support for the Swiss referendum by stating that “[t]he country is our house. We the people have the right to decide who comes in.” The Swiss referendum appears to have fanned the flames of radical conservatism in Europe.
Although populist, conservative parties in Europe are thriving, Le Pen and her counterparts in other countries face significant challenges. First, the FN continues to struggle to gain influence within the French government, despite its expected success in the EP elections this May, though the FN won control of 11 towns in the French municipal elections in March. Second, the FN has been damaged by a string of scandals in recent months. The anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is a good friend of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, and several FN candidates have made racist comments recently. In an attempt to save face, Le Pen has distanced herself from Dieudonné and the candidates, but the stench of controversy is hard to remove.
Another problem concerns the destiny of Le Pen’s European Alliance for Freedom within the EP. As Mudde points out in the Washington Post, similar coalitions have failed to make a difference in the past. At times, this kind of impotence has arisen out of disagreement between the member parties. The FN and its counterparts may fall into this trap; although they share similar views on immigration, they diverge on many other issues. Geert Wilders’ PVV, for instance, supports Israel and gay rights, positions that Le Pen’s FN opposes. If the EAF’s two leaders hold such differences, it is difficult to imagine a group of seven or more parties under their leadership fighting for a common agenda. More importantly, given that these parties are strongly nationalistic, it seems unlikely that they would succeed in forming a transnational alliance.
Even if the FN and other similar parties in Europe fail to establish a lasting influence in the European Union, their present strength is remarkable. In the United States in general and at Brown in particular, we often think of Western Europe as an amorphous unit defined by liberal values and the welfare state. At the very least, Europe is perceived as more progressive than the United States. The rise of Le Pen and the values she represents — nationalism, isolationism, and even xenophobia — demonstrates that Europe is actually far more nuanced than many Americans are likely to believe.
Whether or not Le Pen’s vision is the right path for France and the European Union is beside the point. Instead, the importance of this movement lies in the healthy debate that it has encouraged. In Western Europe, where radical right-wing parties are able to challenge the ideas of established conservative parties, as well as those of the socialists and communists, people’s beliefs are continually questioned. Accordingly, the national dialogue continues to evolve. In light of the hyperpartisanship that has brought Washington to a standstill, the multi-party environment in which the FN has grown seems all the more attractive. Far from being silenced, members of the far right in Europe have an important voice, and Americans would benefit from listening to it.