At present across Europe there is a palpable fear of a rise in far-right political parties whether it be the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Sweden Democrats, or the Vlaams Belang in Belgium. The turmoil of the Eurozone, economic stagnation, home grown terrorism and the complexities of the migration crisis are straining the European Political system and the far-right has expertly exploited these challenges to their electoral advantage.
In response we are seeing a hard reaction to the rise of the far-right, seeking its isolation and complete repudiation. But observers should stop to consider whether these movements actually represent the threat to democracy and pluralism that they are made out to be. The far-right is not what it was in the 1930s. They do not control any state much less do they have any paramilitaries to speak of. For the most part the far-right is operating through the constraints of the democratic political system and it is that very system that insures their marginality.
The real question is whether the far-right should be given an enormous influence on politics out of fear that they are one step away from government. Politics is the art of implementing your agenda through the democratic process and winning the elections that allow you to govern. What is the evidence that the far-right have any prospects in succeeding in this process? And why do observers of European politics make the mistake of believing that governments in the future will potentially be dominated by the far-right?
Lately, France has been a major focus in light of the growth of the far-right Front National led until recently by its controversial founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and now by his daughter Marine Le Pen. The Front National are the inheritors of the ultra-conservative tradition that dates back to the monarchist led opposition to the 1789 Revolution. The party has also replaced the decayed French Communist Party as France's third political force behind the conservative Republicans and the Socialists. The Front National's legacy of hostility towards French minorities, its associations with the Russian state, its sympathy for Vichy and history of anti-Semitism makes the party well outside any acceptable mainstream.
If past history is any indication then Marine Le Pen is only to occupy the Élysée Palace. Her father proved incapable of translating the Front National's popular support into parliamentary seats and Ms Len Pen's endeavours have been no more successful despite her more palatable persona. Real power in France resides in the Presidency and the Front National has had no luck there either. French elections operate on a two round system where the two candidates with the highest number of votes proceed to the second round. In the 5 previous Presidential elections it has been trapped in third place all but once.
In the first round of the 2002 presidential election Le Pen scored a narrow second place finish in a very fragmented field allowing him to faceoff with Jacque Chirac in second round. Much was made of the Front National's surprise showing in the election but any chance of a Le Pen victory was destined to fail. Chirac not only won in a landslide (82 percent) but the overall turnout by French voters jumped 8 percent. Representing the largest increase in voter turnout between rounds for decades while Le Pen's vote increased marginally to 17 percent.
French voters, when faced with the choice between the Front National and a Republican or Socialist have invariably opted for the latter two, as demonstrated by the fact that the Front National has never formed a government at the presidential, regional or departmental level. The only elected offices they can expect to win are in local government municipalities and the European Parliament, neither of which gives them any actual power over the direction of national policy. The Front National will in all likelihood remain confined to third place owing to the refusal of the right and left to do business with them.
The British National Party's (BNP) brief stardom in the latter years of the New Labour era were similarly overhyped. Their best ever result in a general election was a far from consequential 1.9 percent of the vote even after all their polishing of what was a unreconstructed white supremacist politics and despite a considerable amount of media airtime for their leader Nick Griffin. Their so 'victory' in the European elections of 2009, that generated much dread, requires closer examination.
What we must bear in mind is that, unlike national elections, the European elections have spectacularly poor turnout rates. 2009 saw 34 per cent of UK voters go to the polls, 6 percent of whom chose the BNP. By comparison in the 2005 and 2010 general elections turnout was at 61 percent and 65 percent respectively and no BNP breakthrough. Low turnouts are the lifeblood of far-right parties as their populist supporters can be energized into providing the electoral equivalent of a big splash in a small puddle.
Observers should also bear in mind the skewed effects of the EU voting system. Whereas national elections in the UK and France are based on constituency's where voters choose an individual they believe best represents them. The EU vote is based on party-list proportional representation. In the process of which voters are free to absent considerations of seriousness and the ability to govern and substitute with emotional connectivity. In times of economic distress people rightly feel angered and identifying with the angriest candidate is understandably appealing. But, we should recognise that it rarely goes beyond that. What British constituency would seriously view a BNP candidate as being capable of representing them at Westminster?
Leaving aside the BNP's minor flourish, the first place victories of the Front National and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2014 EU elections have so far not been followed by a willingness to junk mainstream governing parties in either Paris or London. Voters can afford to vent their emotions at the ballot box in European polls because nothing is at stake. Absolutely nothing rests on whether or not Labour or the Conservatives have a majority of the UK's EU seats so what does it matter if extremists capture more seats than last time?
Despite the reasonable distress at such results from decent and ordinary Britons and Frenchmen, these token victories do not translate into actual political power. David Cameron's Conservatives after all were not taken down by UKIP in 2015. To quickly clarify, UKIP is by no stretch of the imagination a far-right party, I mention its success to emphasise the point that victories in European elections rarely signify a corresponding success in national elections. Recent local elections in France show that the threat to the Republicans and Socialists from the Front National is not eventuating as demonstrated by its failure to win any regional government. What matters is whether French voters are willing to mobilize in such numbers in order to put Ms Le Pen in office so that she can govern.
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