The Rise of the Far Right in Europe
What we can learn from the successes and failures of the radical right in different countries?
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen meet at the Warsaw Summit for the leaders of far right parties in December 2021. (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
From the end of the Second World War to the 1980s the far right played little role in democratic politics in Europe. They never went away of course: the Franco and Salazar regimes stayed in power, in Spain and Portugal, for decades after the War finished; the Poujadiste movement in 1950s France had a brief flurry of electoral success before de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic; anti-immigrant movements flared up across Europe in the 60s and 70s as citizens of formerly colonial states made their way to Europe.
But, in general, memories of Nazism kept explicitly far right parties from going mainstream in the West, and in the East they were suppressed by Soviet control. Then a new wave started to emerge as old agrarian and fascist parties re-formed under new, more politically astute, leaderships in the West; and the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the chaotic emergence of democracy across former Warsaw Pact countries.
Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine and a former Poujadiste parliamentarian) made an early breakthrough in the mid-80s with the National Front in France, winning seats in local elections. In 1991 the Swiss People’s Party became the largest in Zurich and made gains across Switzerland. At a national level the first party to enter Government was Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, which won the most votes in the 1999 election and joined a coalition. In 2002 Le Pen contested the second round of the French election with Jacques Chirac.
Since then far right parties have participated in coalition governments across the EU: in Italy, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Estonia and Latvia. They have supported Governments with confidence and supply arrangements in Denmark and Norway and become major political players in Spain and Sweden. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz have taken control of the country and are eroding democratic institutions. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, who were not traditionally considered far right, are increasingly moving in that direction with attacks on the judiciary and increasingly incendiary nationalism. And tomorrow Marine Le Pen is expected to win 40-45% of the vote in her second round runoff against Emmanuel Macron; more than doubling her father’s percentage.
This raises three questions. Why have the far right become such an important force within European politics? What explains the significant differences between their levels of success in different countries? How should liberals respond without making the problem worse?
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