A new generation: the rise of the far-right

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Geraldine Cirot investigates the reasons behind the rise of extremism across Europe

In the past two years, far-right parties have received more than ten percent of the vote – and signifiantly more in some cases – during national elections in a range of European countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway.

These election successes provide the most visible evidence of the enduring strength of the far-right and demonstrate what one may describe as the re-birth of a political phenomenon. They also raise questions: does this political phenomenon follow a general pattern in Europe? Are there varieties, and conflicting ideologies? How did far-right parties manage to rekindle the flame?

Stemming from the shock of 9/11 and the growth of Islamisation, the notion of identity is, according to political scientists, the linchpin of the modernisation of far-right parties in Europe. At the heart of their doctrine still lies the rejection of multiculturalism, epitomised by Geert Wilders’ harangue on 14th June 2009 when he declared on the Dutch television channel, DR2, that it was necessary to “deport from Europe… millions, maybe dozens of millions, of Muslims” – ‘criminals’ whose scheme was ultimately to implement Sharia law. In 2004, Wilders had founded the Dutch Party for Liberty, which received five percent of the vote during the 2006 general elections and 15 percent in 2010.

In Switzerland, too, the Muslim community increasingly suffers from stigmatisation as a wave of Islamophobia gave momentum to a 2009 referendum campaign on the ban of minarets: 57 percent of the voters declared themselves in favour of the proposal, which had been put forward by the Swiss People’s Party, the largest party in parliament.

Far-right leaders thus raise the spectre of identity loss with the aim of supplanting the tradtional elites – known for their attachment to universalism – in the name of a ‘popular wisdom’.

In France, Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father as President of the Front National on 16th January 2011, recently proved that she too was launching a war against Islamisation when she drew a parallel with the Occupation: “I am sorry, but for those who are keen on talking about the Second World War and the Occupation, here is precisely an example of occupation… Of course, there are no army tanks, no soldiers; still, it weighs heavily on the inhabitants.”

On 9th December 2010, after Marine Le Pen appeared on a political show on French television, the audience ratings report only confirmed what is now becoming obvious: the new President of the Front National has the wind in her sails. Her interview drew over three million viewers, and the party’s leadership boasted that “thousands of people” called the Front National immediately after the show to get their membership.

In France, Marine Le Pen is portrayed as the emblematic figure of a new generation of far-right leaders that also includes Geert Wilders, Nick Griffin and Jimmie Akesson, the current leader of the nationalist Sweden Democrats. The evolution appears to be mainly generational: their relation with the Second World War and Nazism is different from that of their predecessors, and anti-semitism is no longer on the agenda.

The visit last December of about 30 far-right leaders to Israel – which most of them consider to be in the vanguard of the fight against Islam – testifies to this evolution.

This new generation has yet another common enemy: globalisation – an economic model which, they claim, is responsible for the degeneration of their nations, social disintegration, their loss of independence and values, rampant unemployment and a widespread feeling of insecurity.

What can justify this rise of far-right populism in Europe? Structural reasons have been put forward, such as ageing populations, which are said to generate a culture of anxiety, property, patrimony and greater concern for the themes of security and identity. Other factors brought forth include globalisation, which can generate a demand for national retraction; the burden of deficits, which can be viewed as the harbinger of public impotence; or the waning of faith in Europe as an institution, and in the elites in general.

True, extremism developed to a lesser degree in European countries like Britain, Spain and Portugal. Then why scribble away at this particular issue? Because these modernised parties are more likely to make their way into the democratic mainstream as their ideas subtly spread through the agenda of traditional right-wing parties. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi allied with Gianfranco Fini, founder of the National Alliance; in France, Nicolas Sarkozy encroached upon the Front National’s territory.

Our civil liberties might not come away unscathed.