Should We Be Worried About Europe's Possible Swing To The Far Right?
The Debrief: Arguably it's been building for years... and yes, we should be fucking worried
It’s a tale of two millennials. Similar lives, different countries. Introduced in our teens, while at school as part of a languages exchange programme. I first met her when I went on a small trip to France with my AS level French class and stayed in her home for a week.
Such exchanges are the way that many of my generation experienced the EU in action, whether they will exist when we have children of our own remains to be seen. For our Europhile curriculum, it was all about speaking another language, experiencing another culture and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a bit. Of course, I’m aware that the 15 or so of us who were still studying French at my large suburban comprehensive school post-GCSE were an immensely privileged percentage of the 2000 plus pupils that made up our state secondary school. But, back then I don’t really appreciate the importance of our first encounter. Neither of our families spoke the other's language, none of our parents went to university (mine didn’t stay after their O-Levels) and what would become a great friendship between us was something that they could never have had. Now, I guess, we are both the sort of ‘liberal elite’ that ‘the people’ loathe so much.
France’s far-right and anti-European party, Le Front National, was founded in 1972. However, it was just a few years, in 2002, before I met Camille that it gained prominence when its then-leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was included in a national Presidential election (he lost to Jacques Chirac). Since then, the party has changed leader and gradually become the populist anti-politics party of many disillusioned voters across the country.
Sound familiar? It should. The National Front’s new leader, Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie) sees her ascendance as part of the same right-wing nationalist and populist movement as Brexit, Donald Trump’s win and the apparent surge in support for The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders who is very much hoping to win the election which will take place there on March 15th.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show at the end of last year, Le Pen said that she will, without any doubt, become President of the French Republic when the country goes to the polls in May this year.
She explicitly linked this latent victory to the election of Donald Trump and British electorate’s decision to vote for Brexit, hailing a ‘global revolution’.
If elected, the Eurosceptic Le Pen, said she would pull France out of Nato. She called on French people to ‘upend the table’ around which her country’s elites are sitting. ‘Do we want a multicultural society following the model of the English-speaking world, where fundamental Islam is progressing, where we see major religious claims, or do we want an independent nation with people able to control their own destiny, or do we accept to be a region managed by the technocrats of the European Union?’ she said.
I ask Camille, who grew up near the culturally diverse Marseille (a city which has been described as being ‘more deeply linked to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria than any non-African city’) and is now a teacher in a state school in Lyon, what she thinks. Could this be her country’s Brexit? ‘The Front National has been rising slowly but constantly for ten-fifteen years’ she tells me, ‘I think the predictions of the polls are wrong, they’re overestimating Marine Le Pen’s importance.’
As she says this, I think about how I knew the outcome of the referendum would be Brexit despite what the polls said to the contrary. So, perhaps she is right. ‘I don’t think Marine has the profile of a future President’ Camille says, ‘she’s trying to play to simple fears with simple words but everything is just that – simplistic – and not convincing.’
So is she worried about the possibility of Marine Le Pen doing what her father didn’t do in 2002? ‘I’m worried’ Camille tells me, ‘but not about Marine. I’m worried about the other candidates we have: none of them is convincing, charismatic or honest. It is such a shame.’ She doesn’t think that ‘Brexit is inspiring people to rebel in France’. As she sees it Brexit was about ‘the impossibility to govern a huge country’ where different areas face different problems and have different needs. It would be sad to divide any country up on that basis but the areas are so different, the people are so different.’
‘I think politics everywhere is very disappointing in that respect at the moment’ Camille says, ‘but when it comes to France specifically it is a large and diverse country, I think it’s almost impossible to govern correctly.’
When the time comes, who will she vote for? ‘I don’t know yet’ she says, ‘nobody is convincing me. I’m worried about the environment and education but I’m not convinced that any of the candidates really care about either of those subjects.’
This, too, sounds familiar. Left-leaning millennials elsewhere in the West have been left less than enthralled by the offerings of mainstream political parties (see Hillary Clinton, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn).
Zoe, also in her twenties, is from Paris. I ask her whether she agrees with Camille that Le Pen’s bark is worse than her electoral bite? ‘She’s been playing the politics game in a very clever way. Let’s be honest France has a huge unemployment issue but the French economy is actually growing and these things are not being reported in the media. In France, it’s all very gloomy…people think the country is falling apart. Le Pen has definitely been playing on that type of sentiment. It’s sort of “Make France Great Again” - playing on security fears.’
But does she think she will win? ‘I am very worried about what she could do but I try to hope that, actually, even if she was elected (which I genuinely think she won't be)…I’m failing to see what she would achieve.’
Before France goes to the polls it’s the turn of The Netherlands. As things stand, the polls suggest that the anti-Islam and Eurosceptic Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) could well win. Of course, just as Le Pen, Trump and Nigel Farage are keen to cast themselves as key characters in a coherent movement, commentators are asking whether Europe’s political pendulum has actually swung seriously to the right.
After the outcome of the EU referendum here and Trump’s election in the states a victory for the PVV would be written up in the history books as a clear plot development in the overarching narrative in Western democracies which is seeing the rise of nationalist, anti-establishment and populist right wing movements at the expense of the liberal social democracies that the younger generations in these countries, born long after the Maastricht Treaty, have always known. However, it would be lazy to portray all millennials as bleeding heart pro-European liberals. Le Pen’s party actually won the largest share of 18-24s in last year’s preliminary round of elections, while Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) has the second-youngest party membership in Germany (even if it is predominantly male).
If both the PVV and the Front National win, it’s not hyperbole to say that the impact on the future of the European Union would be profound.
When you google ‘Will Europe…’ in incognito mode it currently autocompletes your question, ‘become right-wing?’. The Sun says, categorically, that far-right parties will surge and win elections because of Donald Trump, while more liberal publications have long been asking whether or not this rightwards shift is happening and, if so, to what extent. Meanwhile, in Britain, our Conservative Brexiteer government has apparently hired top end advertising strategists M&C Saatchi to try and counter the far-right at home and away.
Speaking to me from Amsterdam is Namia who works for the city council. She sees this not as a sudden shift or swing to the right, but the slow and steady rise of a worldview and political creed. ‘It’s been developing for quite a while now’ she says, ‘Wilders is the successor of Pim Fortuyn, another right-wing politician who got assassinated in 2002. I am the child of immigrants and I’m from Moroccan descent – as a group we were targeted by the rhetoric early on, so perhaps we were more aware of it.’
Is she worried about the outcome of her country’s imminent elections? ‘The things that the politicians are saying now…’ she pauses, ‘are beyond. Racism has been normalised. I’m not worried specifically about the outcome of our elections but that this seems like a trend. Racism is mainstream and what comes next? If this is accepted if the Prime Minister can say racist things, then what?’
Ahmed, who is in his early 30s is Somalian. He has lived in the Netherlands since he was 11 agrees. ‘I think it has been building for a while’ he says. Why does he think people hold these anti-immigration and anti-Europe sentiments? ‘I don't believe that most people who are voting far-right, are actually far-right or more importantly they don't consider themselves far-right. Some of them want change, because they are fed up with the old ways politics have been operating, some are scared because of all the scary things they see on TV, some have felt neglected and so on. But if you talk one on one with most who vote far-right, I really think it is possible to reason with them.’
Donald Trump promised people he would ‘Make America Great Again’ and those who campaigned for Brexit promised to ‘Take Back Control’. Wilders has jumped on the bandwagon, he tweets ‘The Netherlands IS ours and says ‘WE WILL make the Netherlands Great Again, meanwhile Le Pen’s party’s unofficial slogan is ‘on est chez nous’ (we are at home). On the right, these politicians are suggesting that they belong to a coherent movement which presents a cure-all for each country’s specific and complicated socio-economic problems.
Meanwhile, the left fails to offer such a coherent and compelling ideological opposition. As we wait to see what happens in France and the Netherlands, it’s hard not to remember that if the last year in politics has taught us anything it’s to expect the unexpected and that those on the right have divided our societies into ‘them’ and ‘us’ while voters like the young people in this piece find that, politically speaking, they belong nowhere.
You might also be interested in:
Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating