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Jason Walsh considers the reasons behind the growth of the far right in Europe

France's National Front. Photo credit: blandinelc via / CC BY - Credit: Photo credit: blandinelc via / CC BY

Arriving in Saint Denis, the northern suburb of Paris one leaves the Hausmannian dreams of Parisian romance far behind.

This impoverished banlieue, home to a mediaeval basilica that was for eight centuries the burial place of French kings, is now one of the most notorious parts of France, a symbol of ethnic division and considered by many to be, like many of the other suburban housing projects, the home of the jihadist threat to France.

Today, I am the only white person to be seen, the population a mix of those of African and Maghreb descent. To me, a foreigner here, they are all French – at least as French as Johnny Hallyday – but to many in France these people are anything but. Worse still, many of them refuse to consider themselves French.

France today is angry and, inevitably, the anger cuts both ways. Many French have grown weary of Islamist terror attacks, and following the Bastille Day massacre in Nice are more enraged than sad. Next year’s presidential election is now all but guaranteed to see a strong performance by the hard right, and although it is unlikely to win, even the mainstream parties are beginning to borrow some of its rhetoric.

France is far from alone. Across the continent there has been a revival on the right, some openly fascist, others on the authoritarian right. The focal point, in many ways, is central Europe.

In Poland there is now no left-wing representation in parliament, although two liberal parties are present in opposition. Governed by the Law and Justice Party (PIS), the country has seen the rolling-back of civil liberties, increasing anti-immigration rhetoric and the public media brought under direct state control.

It’s something of a stretch to call the PIS far-right, but it is certainly a party with authoritarian impulses. Civil servants, for instance, are now directly appointed by the government, and party leader Jaros?aw Kaczynski is noted for his conspiratorial rhetoric and widely viewed as the country’s real leader, rather than prime minister Beata Szydlo or President Andrzej Duda.

Poland also has, in common with Ukraine where Svoboda is on the rise, significant anti-Russian sentiment, which fuels radical nationalism on the streets. Modern Polish and Ukranian identity are forged in opposition to their former domination by the Soviet Union, now seen reflected in the actions of Putin’s Russia.

Hungary’s right-wing government, meanwhile, is facing a challenge from the far-right in the form of Jobbik. Hungary is now home to the strongest anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

Elsewhere in Europe, there are other signs of a right-wing revival, with even social democratic Scandinavia seeing radicals do well at the polls: the Finns party (formerly True Finns) came second in Finland’s 2015 election, winning 19.1% of the vote and 39 seats in parliament. That same year Denmark’s People’s Party won 21.1% of the vote and 37 seats in parliament. A year earlier, Swedish hardline nationalists, the Sweden Democrats, won 49 seats off the back of 12.9% of the vote.

Remarkably, Spain, which has its own not-too-distant fascist past, has seen little far-right activity despite economic crisis, growing discontent with the political elite, independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country and, in 2004, Europe’s single worst Islamist terror attack. True, Falangists have protested against Catalan independence, but the Falange seems more of a throwback to the fascists of yesteryear than a new right rising.

Then, of course, there is France’s National Front (FN).

Easily the most successful hardline right-wing party on the continent, the FN has shed much of its far-right baggage, including its history of playing with anti-Semitic rhetoric, but has made much of the opportunity afforded it by the sense of a nation in crisis.

Led by the telegenic and affable Marine Le Pen, the party has grown enormously in recent years – perhaps unsurprisingly, given years of Islamist terrorism in the country, most recently the Nice massacre that resulted in the deaths of 84 people and the murder of an 86-year-old priest in Normandy.

While Le Pen’s personal charisma marks her out from many right-wing leaders, she has many in the country’s establishment worried, especially as the country is already mired in economic stagnation and is the site of battles between left and right about whether the economy should be protectionist or liberal, with the latter favoured by politicians now routinely described as ‘globalists’.

Indeed, Le Pen’s opposition to ‘mondialisation sauvage’ (the savagery of globalisation) could come from the mouth of any politician on the left of the political spectrum – or perhaps even from Britain’s newly-minted Prime Minister Theresa May, who seems intent on modelling her administration more on central European Christian Democratic politics than Thatcherism.

I am in a taxi. The driver, an actor, born in Guadeloupe, a former French colony now part of France proper, tells me a casting agent told him there is no work for black actors. He plans to move to London and then LA. He is unfailingly friendly, though in part this is because of my nationality – an Irishman, he tells me, knows all about colonialism – but his politics are radical. He supports Robert Mugabe, not just in the sense of having sneaking regard for a man who dispossessed white settlers, but more broadly.

‘Blacks fail because they try to be ‘Good Blacks’,’ he says. ‘We need to act as one. My parents brought me up to be a ‘Good Black’, but I don’t agree with them.’

I am only taking a cab because I have missed the last metro. A bar fight broke out and my journalistic instinct kicked in: it was simply too interesting to leave. It is also the second fight I have seen in a week, not including my being assaulted in the street, and I would see another street fight a day later. The conversation is entirely good-natured, if serious, but there is no denying that this man is angry.

In this, he is not alone – and anger is beginning to blur traditional political boundaries, with the FN expanding its support well beyond its former base of ex-colonists, picking-up many votes from disgruntled former leftists. While the colonial experience is particular to France, this growth among those who now see themselves as dispossessed, either economically or culturally, marks all of the movements of the rising right.

Over-use of the term fascist has occluded the rise of these parties and the reasons for their appeal. The truth is, some are neo-fascist or quasi-fascist, and some aren’t. All, however, are profiting from a continent increasingly ill at ease.

In Britain, for example, UKIP certainly has no shortage of oddball members, but that doesn’t make it far right. In 2014, former leader Nigel Farage said he was ‘proud’ to have sapped support from the extreme British National Party (BNP). Squint a bit and that could be used as a stick with which to beat him, but, in truth, Faragism is pretty far from Falangism. Any mainstream party would be proud about convincing those who were considering voting for an extremist party to change their minds.

Where UKIP, currently in the process of electing a new leader, goes next remains to be seen, faced as it is with the choice of maintaining its free-market orientation or concentrating on challenging Labour by turning left. Whichever wing is victorious will likely mix its economic platform with crypto-nativist appeals, but suggesting that this puts it on the far right would not only bolster the party’s appeal by giving form to its claim to persecution, but also would mean that those who could be arguing back will likely feel its voters should be ignored rather than talked to.

It is undeniable that across Europe a central issue in the rise of the right-wing parties is immigration, and nowhere is this more significant than in Germany, where two movements, Pegida and the Alternative for Germany (AFD), have risen following chancellor Angela Merkel’s volte-face on refugees.

In July 2015, Merkel told a sobbing teenage refugee that she felt sorry for her, but that Germany can’t help everyone. On September 5 she said there would be ‘no limits on the number of asylum seekers’ Germany would welcome. Hailed by the international press, Merkel’s move received a more mixed reaction at home: some see her as a voice of reason and compassion, but her move has also been met with a rise in support for the Pegida and AFD.

Founded in 2014, Pegida pitches itself as a force for European resistance to the ‘Islamisation’ of the West and, by 2015, was attracting crowds of more than 10,000 at its demonstrations in Dresden.

The AFD, meanwhile, was founded in 2013 as a fairly standard euro-sceptical party, concentrating its ire on the euro currency and demands that Germany prop-up failing eurozone member states. Things would soon change, when Frauke Petry took over the party, turning it into a populist right-wing force. Party founder Bernd Lucke, who quit the organisation in 2015, complained Petry was turning it into ‘the Pegida party’.

In Greece, neo-fascism is a lot more clear cut. Rising to prominence following the collapse of the Greek economy and the harsh restructuring measures imposed by the so-called ‘troika’ of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund – the same conditions that also saw far-left Syriza eventually take power – Golden Dawn, an openly xenophobic and street ‘squaddist’ outfit, won 17 seats in the 2015 general election, which made it the third biggest party in parliament, despite being a long way behind Syriza and the centre-right New Democracy.

As Greece is one of the primary entry points into Europe for refugees it remains to be seen if the party will be able to capitalise on discontent in future elections. A Pew Research study published in July indicated that 65% of Greeks polled had an unfavourable view of Muslims in their country (compared with 28% in the UK), but also that the primary drivers for anti-immigration sentiment in Greece were economic, not fears about Islamist terrorism.

About a week after the Nice massacre, I am in the café opposite my flat in an arrondissement of Paris that might charitably be described as ‘up and coming’. It might more honestly be described as scruffy, situated next to Paris’s orbital motorway and the largely immigrant district of Montreuil. I am in conversation with the owner, a man of North African origin, and his architect friend, and a German man who came here for the usual reasons: love and marriage. We are having a heated but friendly debate about imperialism, and I am, for a moment, struck by how legitimately cosmopolitan it is. I am here because I was introduced to the owner by a Jewish pied-noir friend, born in Algeria. Ethnicity, race and religion simply do not matter to these people. Nor, however, do they pretend to agree on politics or be needlessly polite.

I am fascinated because France does have an imperialist past, in Africa, the Middle East and Indochina; and a brutal one at that. France does have some claim to calling itself the intellectual home of both liberty and equality (between which there is an inevitable tension), but it also, to this day, intervenes militarily in Africa.

Despite this, there are no Indochinese or sub-Saharan Africans mowing down people on the promenades of Nice, and those who say that Islamist terror is merely ‘blowback’ for France’s imperial adventures have crossed a moral line that should have given them pause. In crossing it, too, they are adding fuel to the fire that is the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric, with increasing numbers of people feeling, right or wrong, that every terror attack is met with excuses.

Unfortunately the sense of integration at this gathering has a generational component. I am the youngest person in the conversation, and there is evidence that younger French of North African descent are significantly more alienated from their country than their parents and grandparents.

Integration worked in France – but only up to a point. For the middle class and skilled workers, France is just like the movies: beautiful and slightly mordant. For those left behind, whether they are the grandchildren of immigrants, the out-of-work white working class or the so-called ‘precariat’, struggling to juggle short-term contracts and living worse lives than their parents, the picture is not quite so pretty.

Add to this febrile mix the poison of Islamist terrorism and Europe is likely to be in for a bumpy decade.

If multiculturalism is a failed project, and many, myself included, say that it is, it is because it traps people in ethno-religious boxes not of their own choosing. For whatever reason, and the question deserves greater attention, French-style integrationist policies have also failed.

And yet, the emerging twin responses to these failures, responses of lumpen anti-western politics and euro-centric cultural identity politics, offer nothing but further division.

Strategies for dealing with the rise of the right differ. Some countries, such as Finland, have seen mainstream parties embrace their rivals in the hope of tempering their radicalism. Others attempt to lock them out of power through alliances of the mainstream left and right, but this may prove a dangerous strategy, cultivating the grievances that have already been nursed by the sense of being left behind. Whether any strategy can win in the absence of a real vision of the future remains an open question.

The continued rise of anti-immigration politics in Europe isn’t inevitable. It is, however, very likely.

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