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Pascal Perrineau: “Halting the far right should be done with social, economic and cultural policies”

Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the European Parliament are among recent elections which seem to show that parties from the far right are riding high. Pascal Perrineau, university professor at Sciences Po and specialist on the far right in Europe and France, believes that the growth of nationalist forces in several European countries reveals deep discontent but should not, however, be over-estimated.

Touteleurope.fr: Several recent elections (European, Dutch municipal, Hungarian legislative etc.) have shown the vote share of the far right increase significantly. Are we witnessing a new rise of the far right in Europe?

Main parties of the far right in Europe:

Austria: Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO) - 18% and 11% respectively at the 2008 legislative elections

Great Britain: British National Party (BNP) - 6.2% at the 2009 European elections

Belgium: Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) - 11.9% at the 2007 legislative elections

Denmark: Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) - 13.2% at the 2007 legislative elections

France: National Front (FN) - 10.5% at the 2007 presidential elections

Finland: True Finns (Perussuomalaiset) - 10% at the 2009 European elections

Hungary: Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) - 14.7% at the 2009 European elections

Italy: North League (Lega Nord) - 8.53% at the 2008 legislative elections and 10.2% at the 2009 European elections

Norway: Progress Party (FRP) - 23% at the 2009 legislative elections

The Netherlands: Party for Freedom (PVV) - 16.9% at the 2009 European elections and second place in the 2010 municipal elections in The Hague.

Poland: League of Polish Families (LPR) -Z 8% at the 2005 legislative elections

Switzerland: Swiss People’s Party (UDC) - 29% at the 2007 federal elections

Pascal Perrineau : We must take a balanced perspective. The situation of the far right varies greatly from one European country to another. In certain countries, there have been some real swings recently.

This is the case, for example, in Hungary where the Jobbik movement took 15% of the vote whereas it represented just 3% a few years ago.

This is also the case in Denmark where the Danish People’s Party consistently take over 10% of the votes.

In Norway, the Progress Party (a populist and quite distinctive party) is now one of the major parties. In Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party (also populist and led by Christoph Blocher) has become the number one party in the country.

In all these countries, we can see a clear dynamic where far right or national-populist parties are at the forefront.

But we must not project this situation onto Europe as a whole. Today, the far right is almost non-existent as an electoral force in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden etc. In Great Britain, the BNP is still a fringe party despite making some gains. In Poland, the League of Polish Families - which was an important party in the first years of the 21st century - received less than 2% of the vote at the last legislative elections.

In Austria, the situation is more complicated. The FPO experienced strong growth under Jorg Haider, becoming part of a conservative government. Then the far right broke into two parties. However, in the last elections, the two far right parties gained between 28% and 29% of the vote. The far right is once again a force to be reckoned with in Austria.

The far right therefore has different roles in each country and should not be seen as an unstoppable wave spreading across all European countries. In several countries, it represents a major force occasionally difficult coexistence between the different cultures. sometimes becoming one of a country’s major parties (above 20%) but in a minority of European countries, the far right still gets less than 10% of the vote.

Touteleurope.fr: what are the consequences of the economic and social crisis on the performance of the far right?

Pascal Perrineau : The effects of social breakdown related to the crisis, but also the effects of loss of identity linked to globalisation (economic, political and cultural) seem to give strength to nationalist forces such as the far right.

We see this, for example, with the resurgence of the National Front in France (at a level that is nonetheless lower than in the 1990s and the start of the 2000s) which is becoming established in areas that are particularly affected by the economic and social crisis such as the Pas de Calais region. In Hungary also, where the economy and society is particularly suffering the effects of the crisis, a large number of affected citizens are turning towards the Jobbik movement and ensuring that it is one of today’s major parties in that country.

Touteleurope.fr: Could the far right get a good share in the upcoming elections in Belgium, the Netherlands etc.?

Pascal Perrineau : In the Netherlands, it indeed looks like the Party for Freedom (PVV), according to the latest municipal elections, is significantly on the rise. In 2006, it was still marginal with less than 6% of the vote but this time it will surely make double digits.

Several factors can explain this growth. Of course, there is the economic and social crisis but, in addition, for the last few years there has also been discontent among large parts of the Dutch population with regard to immigration and, at times, to the type of Islam that is relatively combative and to which a small but vocal minority of immigrants in the Netherlands belong.

This very calm and consensual country was thus brutally affected by political violence with the assassinations of Pym Fortuin and Theo Van Gogh. Dutch society has experienced serious demographic pressure and its balance and identity have been disrupted by major immigration flows and an occasionally difficult coexistence between the different cultures. This discontent gives the PVV a dynamic which will certainly give them great strength in the next legislative elections.

In Belgium, the situation is more complex as it depends on whether we are discussing Flanders or Wallonia. The far right has a very different power in the two regions. In Wallonia, despite it being seriously affected by the economic and social crisis, it is still a marginal force (at the last legislative elections, the National Front garnered 2% of the vote). However, in Flanders it has really taken root and Vlaams Belang’s share of the vote at the next legislative elections will probably be even bigger. The strength of the far right is a very Flanders phenomenon and is a legacy of Flemish ultra-nationalism.

Touteleurope.fr: Are we witnessing a radicalisation of the European right itself whose policies are sometimes taken from the far right?

Pascal Perrineau : Again, the situation is more complex than it seems. In some countries, the right seems safe from all of the far right’s themes. For example, in Germany, there is no sense that Angela Merkel’s coalition yields excessively to the ideas of the German far right which in any case is very marginalised (except in certain Landers in the East).

Nonetheless, in other countries of course, some far right forces can put their usual themes on the agenda such as immigration, law and order policies etc. This shows their indirect strength and their ability to influence the political and governmental agenda.

Touteleurope.fr: What are the differences and similarities between Europe’s far right parties?

Pascal Perrineau : What differentiates them is firstly the fact that they all have nationalisms that are deeply entrenched in the national myths and history that they peddle and these are sometimes extremely antagonistic. The Italian far right has difficulty agreeing with the Austrian far right, the German far right with the French one etc. As I often say, there is nothing more difficult than making nationalists international!

Today, the European Parliament has no far right grouping and in the outgoing Parliament, the group led by Bruno Gollnisch was very short-lived as it quickly came apart over a disagreement between Romanians and Italians. Today, we often see far right or national-populist MEPs that were elected in 2009 aligning themselves either overwhelmingly with the non-affiliated (as is the case for the National Front) or remaining isolated (as is the case of the Danish People’s Party) in predominantly eurosceptic groups.

So, there is no political unity or unified political expression among these families of the far right. That does not mean that there is no link between all these parties.

They are generally noted for their significant concern for, and ability to politicise, two issues - security and immigration. Some commentators see these parties making their comeback around anti-immigration issues which have been relatively ignored by both the left and the right. .

The second element is that all these parties peddle nationalism with an ethno-cultural dimension which can cause some to veer off to xenophobic or racist positions. We can find this tendency among all far right parties to varying degrees.

Quite often, it is the parties that have a charismatic leader at the helm who can easily manipulate populist and inflammatory discourse such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Jorg Haider then Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria and Christoph Blocher in Switzerland.

Lastly, beyond the left-right divide, all European countries still have what I call a divide between open societies and societies that are refocusing on nationalist themes. With the challenges of globalisation, some parts of society feel that it has gone too far and want to re-centre politics at national level. Other more optimistic people feel that this opening up has a price but is more beneficial than refocusing on nationalism. At the forefront of the former group, the far right has no difficulty advocating rigorous solutions for re-centring on nationalism and denouncing supranational constructions, particularly the European Union.

These are the themes that create the ideological, programmatic and organisational ‘unity’ of these parties.

Touteleurope.fr: What part of the electorate is today being seduced by the far right?

Pascal Perrineau : There are indeed some common characteristics. The archetype of a far right voter in Europe would be:

  • A man as through values that are often macho, the far right has great ability to connect with certain elements of the male population.
  • A relatively young voter. It is incorrect to think that the far right attracts older people who are nostalgic for the authoritative regimes of the interwar years as it is in fact more attractive to young people who are having difficulty with social and professional integration.
  • A working-class voter for whom the economic and social problems are particularly important.
  • An individual who has a low or average standard of education and who does not have the necessary frame of reference to make sense out of what is changing in our societies and economies thus giving greater a opening to the fears and demonology that the far right peddles

Touteleurope.fr: How can we effectively combat the progression of the far right in Europe?

Pascal Perrineau : It is not enough to denounce the by-products of this group or that leader of the far right. This policy, which can lead to stigmatisation, has proved to be relatively ineffective most of the time. Acting upstream on social, economic and cultural domains which feed the electoral dynamic of these parties is a much better solution.

Through being involved in bringing solutions to the economic and social crisis in working-class populations that have been particularly affected and being attentive to the identity-related concerns and questions of certain sections of the population, we can contribute to weakening the far right’s dynamic and to reduce the level of concerns that these forces often thrive on.

Lastly and as we have seen from other political forces, it is about developing an attitude that without being aggressive, is clear on the principles of political action in a pluralist democracy and therefore makes no strategic concessions to the far right. So, it is about being strong on the principles and values which were the foundation of European construction and to return to the messages of the founding fathers in the 1950s.

To find out more:

Pascal Perrineau’s personal page on the Sciences Po site (FR)

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