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That far-right victory in Europe? It's not quite what it seems

It sounds like an old story: Battered by economic collapse and fraying political bonds, Europeans turn against one another and elect angry far-right political parties in droves.

Is that what happened Sunday night? The headline outcome, after almost 180 million people cast their ballots in the European Parliament election, was a big surge in support for anti-immigrant, anti-Europe and sometimes outright racist parties of the angry right-wing fringe. France and Britain, respectively, elected their largest batches of parliamentarians from the National Front – which has opposed French citizens of Jewish, Muslim and Roma backgrounds – and the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP). A quarter of all French, British and Danish voters cast their ballots for right-wing fringe parties.

Viewed from Europe's western flank, it looked like an alarming tide of hate and intolerance. But the far right remained a minority unconnected to any governing parties – and it became more fragmented. A larger story might be the failure of extremists to gain traction beyond their core constituency of disenfranchised "outsider" voters, despite tough economic conditions.

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"In the end, France is the only large EU member state with a credible and popular far right, which will probably account for almost 50 per cent of all far-right seats in the next European Parliament," concluded Cas Mudde, an analyst of far-right politics at the University of Georgia, in an analysis before the election.

Ukraine's outcome was the most dramatic: While not a member of the EU, it had a vital post-uprising national election on Sunday. The ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic Svoboda party and the fascist-leaning Pravy Sektor, both described as looming threats by Russian media, each attracted only about 1 per cent of the vote.  That election was a huge victory for moderation and national unity.

Likewise, in most of the 28 EU countries, mainstream parties took the lion's share of votes.

The European Parliament remains a place largely given over to bland moderation. Once the votes were fully counted Monday, the largest winners were the parties of the moderate centre-right, which attracted 213 of 751 seats. They were followed by parties of the moderate centre-left, with 190 seats; liberals, with 64; and Greens, with 53.

The anti-Europe and far-right parties together collected about 130 seats; almost half of these were from Britain and France. In other words, these parties will play no part in the governing of Europe, as no mainstream parties will work with them.

And the extreme fringe, in its own analysis, became more fragmented rather than more united on Sunday night. "At the very moment that Euroskepticism triumphed at the polls," blogged Daniel Hannan, an outspoken anti-Europe Conservative MEP from Britain, "I saw, with terrifying clarity, that we were about to throw it all away. … UKIP's rise continues to be bought at the expense of the wider anti-EU cause."

In some countries, the far right was replaced by the far left: The left-wing protest party Syriza, which is opposed to European economic policies, won the most seats in Greece with 27 per cent and its cousins United Left and Podemos in Spain led at the polls, each getting around 10 per cent.

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The far-right parties and Euroskeptic parties are far from united. While most of them are against immigration and are outspoken supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, they've so far failed to form a united front. Some are anti-Semitic, while others oppose only Muslims or Roma. Some, like Britain's UKIP, are officially opposed to racism and won't work with overtly racist parties.

Still, the French outcome remains alarming: In a country whose citizens include half of Europe's Jews and its largest population of Muslims, it is distressing to see a quarter of voters cast ballots for the National Front, a virtually single-issue party devoted to opposition to Jews, Muslims and Roma. (The party also attracted nearly a fifth of votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential vote). Even more alarming is that three in 10 French voters under 35 (in a country with youth unemployment over 20 per cent) voted for the National Front.

None of these parties, even in France, is poised to become a governing party, or even a major opposition party. Public attitudes toward religious and racial minorities are becoming more tolerant, not less so, in Western Europe. The votes for angry fringe parties, analysts say, represent an alienated minority – the elderly, uneducated, as well as some perpetually unemployed youth – who are cast out of the mainstream political system, seemingly for good.

Those who see the British and French far-right votes as a passing protest, argues the University of Nottingham political scientist Matthew Goodwin, "underestimate the depths of anger among financially struggling, blue-collar and left-behind voters who are its core electorate. These voters have long felt intensely anxious over an array of perceived threats to their identity," both from minorities and from the European Union itself.

The bad news is that those voters aren't going away. The only consolation is that they are, by definition, on the margins.

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