As Francois Hollande took the stage to be sworn in as France’s new President, a sombre-looking Evangelos Venizelos addressed the media in Athens, informing them that attempts to form a coalition had failed and that Greece would have to head to the polling booths again within the month. At the ceremony, Mr. Hollande vowed that he would help put an end to the crippling Eurozone crisis; while a visibly shaken Mr Venizelos could only muster a plea to God: “For God’s sake, let’s move towards something better, not something worse”.
Mr. Venizelos’ cause for concern ostensibly extends beyond the failure to form a coalition government and the prospect of Greece ceding from the Eurozone. Days before, 21 members of the extreme right-wing party Golden Dawn were sworn into parliament. Golden Dawn is undoubtedly the most extreme right-wing party to be active in mainstream European politics today. Their leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is an open admirer of Hitler, calling him a “great personality of history”; his party have adopted what seems to be a reworked swastika as their emblem; and their policy espouses virulent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, and Euro-scepticism.
The far-right has always been a part of the European tradition. However, the emergence of remodelled far- and extreme- right parties in the past decade, and the increasing palatability of these parties, is seen by many as the alarming rise of fascism. While acknowledging the idiosyncrasies of each party and their differing degrees of extremism, there is a large ideological overlap between them. For the most part, these parties adopt inflammatory rhetoric to paint a picture of the nation-state and national identity as under siege from immigrants: mostly Jews, Muslims and Roma. These migrants, it is believed, are sapping national culture, and are ultimately responsible for the existential and financial hardship of struggling Europeans.
The dismissal of these parties as ‘fascists’ and ‘neo-Nazis’ is, however, ultimately reductive and beyond the point. There are fundamental differences between the fascist parties of the interwar period and the far-right parties of today. Monsterrate Guidbernau, a Professor of Politics at the University of London, has argued that it would be an error to mistake these parties as fascists. Rather than disregard them, it is important that we understand these parties and the reasons for their growing popularity.
Whilst still capitalising upon xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamism, contemporary far-rightist parties exploit this sentiment in order to advocate a process of solidification, or fortification of the nation state, as opposed to a policy of expansion. Moreover, even the more extreme parties, such as Golden Dawn, still choose to operate within the confines of a parliamentary democracy. Their acceptance of capitalism, and particularly, apathy towards communism, are further indicators of how they might rightly be conceived of as new.
The success, and perhaps even existence, of these far-right parties is largely sustained by their populist approach to politics. Given the negativity associated with the charge of fascism, most far-right parties have tried to publicly distance themselves from such an image. The trajectory of the Austrian Freedom Party in the last 13 years is a case in point. Adopting a euro-sceptic, anti-immigration, and pan-German vision of culture, the party managed to win 26.9 per cent of the vote in the 1999 national election: enough to form a coalition government with the Austrian People’s Party. The coalition, however, was subject to sanctions from the European Union, which bemoaned the victory as a legitimisation of the “extreme right in Europe”.
Following this condemnation was increasing controversy surrounding leader Joerg Haider’s openly pro-Nazi stance. On numerous occasions he defended the policy of Nazi Germany and the actions taken by its members. Upon his election, he attempted to reject comparisons with the Nazi Party by remarking: “The Freedom Party is not the descendant of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority”. The party soon lost public favour.
After dying in a car-crash, Haider was replaced by Heinz-Christian Strache. Distancing himself from Haider’s pro-Nazi stance, Strache was able to gain popularity by tapping into the concerns of voters vis-à-vis immigration, and the state of the Eurozone. His campaign slogans read: “Too many foreigners does no one good”, “We believe in our youth, the SPO in immigration”, “More strength for our Viennese blood”. In 2006, he was able to reclaim an impressive 11 per cent of the vote, and many now anticipate that he and his party will win the 2013 election. Whilst Strache is one of the most effective populists in Austrian politics today, and is invariably less controversial than his predecessor, he has been frequently accused of having ties with the Neo-Nazi community. Numerous videos and pictures have been distributed which depict Strache partaking in militia training, giving the Nazi salute, and distributing anti-Islamic election posters.
“The Freedom Party is not the descendant of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority”. – Austrian Freedom Party
In trying to make sense of the increasing popularity of far-right parties, such as the Austrian Freedom Party, many commentators have been quick to explain this trend in terms of the economic turmoil currently affecting Europe. It is believed that much of the support for these parties comes from lower-middle class voters, many of who are self-employed, or form part of the skilled and unskilled working class. Such voters, it is believed, are anxious about rising rates of unemployment and impending austerity measures. Immigrants are seen as both causing and aggravating this financial hardship.
In the recent French election, far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen was able to capitalise upon this sentiment in order to gain support. Adopting a far-right agenda, similar to that used by the Jobbik party in Norway, Le Pen promised voters that if elected, she would opt out of the Eurozone and limit immigration to only 10,000 people a year. Whilst unable to outdo Hollande, Le Pen was still able to attract 18 per cent of the vote; the highest percentage ever won by a National Front candidate. Interviewed upon exiting a polling booth, a supporter of Le Pen told a reporter: “We have to get out of the euro currency. And with unemployment on the rise, we hardly need mass migration”.
The increasing popularity of the National Front in France demonstrates the extent to which the policies of far-right parties across Europe resonate with voters. Associate Professor Judith Keene, a specialist in movements of the Extreme Right in Sydney University’s Department of History, told Honi Soit that many far-right parties are engaging with issues (particularly immigration) which are of genuine concern to voters. Dr Keene suggests that many voters are apprehensive about the high rate of immigration across Europe, and are fearful about the potential financial and cultural problems that this might have.
The question of migrants in countries like Greece and Spain is “a boiling unidentified problem”, Dr Keene says. From January until Easter, roughly 40,000 migrants entered Greece, mostly from North Africa. In Spain, almost half the youth population is unemployed. Voters believe that the influx of migrants poses a grave threat to job security, and the government, Keene suggests, is “lost in exactly how to deal with this, especially when the economy is so bad”. Given the inability of governing parties to deal with this problem, let alone adequately articulate it, many voters are now looking beyond conventional parties for a solution to the problem.
Many fear, however, that anti-migrant sentiment is slowly translating into acts of racism and discrimination. A recent report by the Council of Europe (ECRIS) warned that economic hardship, (particularly cuts to public services), had created a ‘vicious cycle’, causing the resurgence of age-old prejudices. “Old myths about yielding influence in the financial world are revived”, the report stated. “Discrimination in employment is rife. Racism and intolerance are on the rise in Europe today and the resulting tension sometimes leads to racist violence”.
Professor Konrad Kwiet, a Holocaust survivor in the Sydney University Department of Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish Studies, told Honi there has been a “dramatic increase in anti-Semitic attacks and campaigns” across Europe. Professor Kwiet believes that much of this had been caused by the current financial crisis: “In this current economic crisis and climate, which all European countries are facing, anti-Semitism is now being reignited”. Discrimination against Jews has now become conflated with resentment towards migrants, particularly Muslims and Roma. Professor Kwiet suggests that anti-Semitic, anti-Islamist, and anti-migrant sentiment now “serves as a marvellous instrument to blame others for misery and hardship”. For extreme-right parties and many in the community, migrants have now become scapegoats.
Alain De Benoist, founder of France’s Nouvelle Droit (New Right), believes that the existence of far-right parties is contingent upon the existence of enemies. Since the fall of Communism, the far-right has had to develop a new ideological weapon, and the easiest way to do so was to “make foreign workers a target”. De Benoist suggests that the far-right has been so successful at rendering ‘foreign’ workers enemies, that they have perpetuated a fantasy of them being the root of all problems.
“It is easy to see how this culture of risk becomes a culture of fear”, De Benoist says. “And how this culture of fear then becomes a culture of fantasy.” He cites the legitimate anxieties caused by an increase in insecurity and unemployment’, as reasons giving rise to a “multitude of fantasies, beyond whatever real problems might be posed by immigrants”. This has led, he believes, to immigrants systemically being “thought to be unemployed, drug traffickers, Islamists, and revolutionaries, who want to transform France into a mosque”.
Many believe that far- and extreme- right parties have benefited from these ‘multitude of fantasies’. By blaming migrants for the financial woes of Europe, far-right parties are able to use their cuts to immigration policy as a way to remedy economic turmoil.
Economic explanations, however, are unable to fully account for the success of the far-right in some of Europe’s most affluent countries, such as Switzerland and Austria. Unemployment in Switzerland and Austria are well below the OECD average, and their social welfare systems are among the best in Europe.
In countries like Switzerland and Austria, it seems that migrants are not only being blamed for financial insecurity, they are being blamed for the apparent erosion of national culture. Globalistion, particularly in the form manifest by institutions such as the EU, together with immigration, are seen as carrying the risk of standardisation.
Dr Keene says that in countries like Spain, which have no history of immigration, the influx of migrants is particularly overwhelming. Many in the community have found themselves “suddenly confronted with a great wave of refugees”, she said, and are baffled as to how to deal with this. The speed and the rate at which migrants have flown into the country has taken many by surprise, and has perpetuated a fear of the unknown other. This fear has been enhanced by the genuine belief of many: that national culture and the culture of migrants are incompatible.
The term ethnopluralism (coined by De Benoist) is now used by many far-right parties to expound their migration/cultural policies. Ethnopluralism advocates a respect for cultural and ethnical difference, but maintains that the best strategy to protect these is to avoid their mixing.
Bruno Megret of Italy’s far-right Front National has used this term to proffer a revised version of democracy in Italy – one based upon cultural unity. “Democracy cannot take place among a collection of individuals sharing no bonds among themselves and having incompatible cultural references,” Megnet says. The only way a nation can sustain its existence and culture, he continues, is “to recognize each other as close by means of a language, culture, faith, blood and history”.
Many commentators have been alarmist in the way that they have discussed these parties, and the potential effects that they might have on Europe. For many, it seems prudent to hastily dismiss them as extremists and/or fascists. Others have encouraged a discussion of these parties, but only in the most polemical and vitriolic terms. It is a truism that much of what these parties advocate could be construed as xenophobic and racist. This does not mean, however, that we should avoid discussing their reasons for having adopted this policy, and the reasons behind its growing traction in public debate.
When asked about the spectre of these far- and extreme- right parties coming into power, Professor Kwiet incredulously replied: “They are not the main political parties…they are not a determining political force”. Of the extreme right parties (such as the neo-Nazis), Professor Kwiet acknowledged that in deep crises, the hate ideologies of such parties can “play a very fateful role”. He added, however, that: “I don’t think that at the state Europe is in, a situation where these ideologies will become state ideologies will emerge.”
Given the unlikelihood of these parties having state control, the biggest influence that they currently and will continue to wield is the shaping of political discourse. Many see recent government restriction on migration flow, and Sarkozy’s ban on the burqa, as examples of how the far-right are now affecting the political agenda of much of Europe.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Reflecting upon the political effect of the far-right, Dr Keene said that much of it has been positive. In shifting the political discourse, and forcing parties in the centre and left to engage with it, people are able to voice their concern about the rate of immigration, and the state of the economy, without having to identify, or absolutely align themselves, with the far-right.
Currently, Dr Keene says, “people feel disempowered to speak about those things. I think that we have a problem here. One doesn’t want to speak about those issues because they don’t want to line up with the ‘crazy people’”.
If these issues are of genuine concern, then it is important that they no longer remain taboo, and that they be open to discussion and debate on all sides of politics. It is a question of democracy whether these ‘issues’ ever become hate ideologies.
Jackson Busse is on Twitter: @jacksonbusse