Dealing with the far-Right

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Dealing with the far-Right

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella

Last night I saw upon the stair,

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

William Hughes Mearns

Say what you will about Emmanuel Macron but the one thing he doesn’t do is bury his head in the sand. To borrow a phrase from Britain’s ex-Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, Macron puts on his best suit and marches towards the sound of guns.

Following news of big gains by the far-Right in the recent European parliament poll, the French President barely drew breath before calling a parliamentary general election. As gambles go, even for a man who relishes risk, this is a whopper.

His message to the French electorate was (I paraphrase): “You want Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement Nationale (RN) to run France? Be my guest. But be careful what you wish for.”

Macron’s challenge is a big moment for France, for Europe and for his legacy. It raises important questions about the nature of plurality and extremism as the far right’s footprint in Europe gets bigger.

Can liberal democracies accommodate the rise of far-Right parties without upheaval? Is there, at a basic level, a shared set of values – about democracy, about citizenship – that allows sharply contested points of view to exist peacefully cheek by jowl? It’s the question Americans ask of Donald Trump.

The flip side of this question is whether the far-Right can evolve from essentially negative protest movements, sniping from the sidelines at a state they claim to despise, to govern responsibly? That too is a question posed about Trump, who threatens to use his power not to govern but to settle scores.

France was not alone in seeing nationalists gain ground in the European elections: they made gains in Austria, Greece, Cyprus and the Netherlands. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats were overtaken by the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD), while the other two parties in his coalition did even worse.

Britain’s first past the post electoral system prevents minor parties from making major gains. But with Reform UK, née the Brexit party, née UKIP, and its new leader/owner Nigel Farage polling ever-closer to the Tories, a major realignment of the Right is no longer inconceivable.

Macron’s move has been portrayed as a spectacular throw of the dice by a man with rapidly waning political powers. His list in the European parliament got just 14.6 per cent of the vote, against the RN’s 31.4 per cent. He faces defeat and more street protests in the autumn over his annual budget, which includes more big spending cuts.

But Macron’s flash election is also, according to some, a bold move to “out” the NF in the belief that, in government, it would screw up so badly it would kibosh Le Pen’s chances of becoming President in 2027.

If, after the two-round vote on June 30 and July 7, Le Pen wins control of the French lower house or wins enough seats to form a right-wing coalition under the system known as “cohabitation”, Macron will have to share power. A President and a Prime Minister (who needs the approval of National Assembly) with diametrically opposing views on how to run the country could lead to economic paralysis and civil unrest.

The FT’s Janan Ganesh describes this cure or kill strategy as the last best hope against populism by exposing it to government. “At some point voters have to live with the consequences of their stated desires.”

Maybe. But are we right merely to be “against” populism? Are we not falling into the same trap that led to Brexit? Has the Republican party been cured of the arch-populist Trump after a riotous first term, a call to insurrection and a criminal conviction?

We might just pause and ask ourselves why, 80 years since the end of WWII, are we faced with rising populism, with its echoes of an intolerant past?

Far-Right parties have traditionally been authoritarian, racist and anti-Semitic. In a word, fascist. They evoke a dark period in European history. Modern versions are more complex, subtler.  But like their antecedents, they draw their strength from a real crisis in democracy which seems incapable of fulfilling its promise for many.

Neither the centre-Left nor the centre-Right appear to offer alternative economic models that work. This gives rise to the perception that legacy parties are all the same and in hock to the “deep state” or to high finance. Government and big business are opposite sides of the same revolving door. Elections become empty rituals that merely perpetuate injustice meted upon the “ordinary, working citizen”.

It’s an analysis validated by the personal experience of many. A financial crash that saw giant banks rescued at the taxpayer’s expense; the persecution in plain sight of sub-postmasters by a callas Post Office; friends of the great and the good trousering millions during the most lethal pandemic in a century.

Populists offer no salient solutions to the very real, structural problems mixed economies like Britain, France and Germany face: stagnant productivity, underinvestment, poor public finances and ageing populations. Instead they serve up migrants and “the elites” as scapegoats. These are soft targets.

So can the populist Right get real? And can it work with the grain?

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s Prime Minister and leader of the Brothers of Italy, is an interesting case. Meloni is now the most powerful right-wing politician in Europe. She is smart and flexible. She plays good cop abroad and bad cop at home.

In contrast to Matteo Salvini’s ultra-populist La Liga and Le Pen’s RN, Meloni favours working with Brussels. She assiduously courts EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU has poured £180 billion in Covid recovery funds into Italy, where the economy is outperforming most of the rest of the EU.

Meloni’s foreign policies are decidedly pro-Western. She’s friends with Ukraine’s Volodymir Zelensky and on good terms with Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, while at the same time pushing a meat and potatoes populist message at home. This is the normalisation of the populist Right.

Jordan Bardella, the good-looking 28-year-old TikTok sensation who will be French Prime Minister if Le Pen’s RN succeeds in winning a majority at the general election, is another example of the populist Right smoothing its rough edges. He has played a key role in normalising the party whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen once described the Holocaust as a “detail of history”.

The far-Right/ populist Right/radical Right (call it what you will) is a fact of life. It’s not just the elderly who are voting for it. Young people in France and Germany are flocking to populist Right parties. A landslide win by Labour in the UK on July 4 won’t change that.

People who have nothing and therefore nothing to lose will be drawn to the siren voices of populism. The way to deal with populism and its darker side is not to squash it, but to deal with the causes that gave rise to it in the first place.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 57%
  • Interesting points: 65%
  • Agree with arguments: 51%
40 ratings - view all

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