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Does France’s vote for extremists herald dark days for Europe? Add to ...

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On Sunday night, it seemed to many observers as if the darkest days of the 20th century had begun to return to Europe. In France’s municipal elections, the National Front (FN), an anti-immigrant party with a history of anti-Semitism and ties to fascism, won control of eight town governments and as many as 1,200 municipal council seats. One member of the governing Socialist Party called the day “Black Sunday.”

The FN took an estimated 7 per cent of all municipal votes – nothing quite like the disturbing 17.9 per cent their leader Marine Le Pen attracted in the first round of the 2012 presidential election (which was won by Socialist François Hollande) but a record result that has once again left observers worrying about an extreme-right resurgence.

Given that France has both the largest Jewish population and one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, the rise of a single-issue party devoted to hatred of religious minorities is an alarming development.

Add to that the likelihood that the even more extreme far-right Jobbik party will gain seats in next week’s Hungarian elections, and that a resurgence of the racist right has been seen in the Netherlands, Greece and elsewhere, and there’s good reason to fear for Europe.

But that fear needs to be put in context: It isn’t so much a sudden rise to mainstream prominence, observers say, but a much slower decades-long increase of the marginal population who are willing to back parties of hate.

This isn’t a response to hardship. In the years after the severe economic crisis that struck Europe in 2008, there was one surprising bit of good news: Not one single country, among the European Union’s 28 member states and their neighbours, fell to extremism or authoritarianism. Despite the considerable anger of large populations, communism, fascism and other extremes did not become mainstream politics.

Far-right extremist parties did pick up parliamentary seats in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Greece and elsewhere, but none of them came even close to forming a government and mainstream parties generally imposed a tight cordon sanitaire around them. In some of the largest countries, including Germany and Britain, extremist parties actually declined in popularity; Britain’s BNP and Germany’s NPD (both fascist-style parties) were virtually wiped off the map.

So why, now that Europe’s economy is in recovery, is an apparent resurgence of the right taking place in many countries?

The British political scientist Matthew Goodwin, in his new book Revolt on the Right (which focuses on Britain’s xenophobic UKIP party) notes that this increase in tolerance for extremism is not so much a flash response to current economic events as a slow, decades-long increase across Europe in the political extremism of groups of generally low-income, low education voters who have lost their place in the new middle-class politics of the post-industrial age.

Scholarly explanations for this new extremism vary. One 18-country study found that dislike of the European Union trumped distrust of foreigners or religious minorities as a source of support for these parties – in other words, their voters are expressing a generalized isolationism and nationalism rather than specific hate.

But Mr. Goodwin’s analysis of the research shows that this Euro-skepticism is “closely related to beliefs that the nation and ‘native’ group are under threat” – in other words, that this is a new way of expressing more traditional forms of xenophobia and intolerance.

Other surveys show that voters are casting ballots for these parties as a protest vote – that is, as a display of dissatisfaction with all the mainstream parties. This was certainly a factor in France, where Mr. Hollande’s governing Socialists are extremely low in the polls and the conservative opposition UMP party is still tarnished from its 17 years in the presidency.

Yet it is one thing to cast a protest vote for a minor party; it is quite another to choose to cast it for a notorious anti-minority party whose politics are well known.

In Mr. Goodwin’s view, this is a case of extremist parties such as the FN or UKIP or Jobbik learning to exploit existing political conditions to gain votes among a disenfranchised group who have been slowly growing in number for decades. Support for these parties tends to be among older, white, low-income voters with little education – – a group who are susceptible to racialized views of the world around them and a politics of group resentment.

“The potential for a political insurgency of this kind has existed for a long time,” he concludes. “Its seeds lay among groups of voters who struggled with the destabilizing and threatening changes brought by de-industrialization, globalization and, later, European integration and mass immigration. These groups always occupied a precarious position… now, as their incomes stagnated and their prospects for social mobility receded, they found themselves being left behind… This is a group of voters who are more inclined to believe in an ethnic conception of…national identity.”

This is hardly encouraging news: It means that results like Sunday’s are hardly a flash in the pan. It does mean that these parties are still unlikely to enter the mainstream, but it does mean that Europe has a far larger, and more difficult, political problem to deal with in bringing a large number of its voters back into mainstream politics.

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