Nationalism in a supranational community: the rise of populist politics in Europe

"To establish security, only one solution: the Natonal Front!" Campaign poster courtesy of frontnational.com
“To establish security, only one solution: the Natonal Front!” Campaign poster courtesy of frontnational.com

The recent resurgence in nationalist rhetoric in the United States under the Trump presidency has been analogous with a similar resurgence in populist political parties and anti-Europeanization promises in key EU states like France and Germany.

Europeanization was a term developed by political scientists to address the tendency toward increased European integration in the post-war era. This process was presumably set on a relatively more permanent trajectory after the development of a common currency and a single market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The United Kingdom’s decision to pull out of the EU – the now infamous Brexit vote – shocked proponents of Europeanization and highlighted the depth to which nationalist sentiments had penetrated the European political mainstream.

“I do think there are some important differences between the American and the European context, but certainly a lot of Europe’s far-right leaders have taken heart in the Donald Trump victory and see that as a sign for their own prospects,” Professor of History David Harvey said. “I know he [Trump] has had some meetings and some contact with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP or UK independence party in Britain, and also with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National. I don’t think these are signs of sort of a deep contact between them – I’m not sure Trump even knows very much about the people that he was meeting with – but there are definite affinities in terms of right-wing populist movements trying to tap into discontent. People who feel concerned with immigration, concerned about crime, concerned about being left behind by globalization – those are things that are similar across Europe and the United States and have given rise to this new political moment.”

France’s Front National (FN) represents one of the more virulent strains of European nationalism, with a platform that is centered on immigration reform – with a special emphasis on policies that target Islamic immigrants – and the promise to pull France from the EU. Marine Le Pen, the current leader of the FN and the daughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has built up a legion of supporters through promoting the image of a France wracked by violence and anti-French sentiments, a form of reverse racism in which the (still strongly majority) white French population is forced to change its (racist) ways to accommodate French POCs. (Marine’s dramatic coup d’état in which she wrestled the position of party leader from her father and the ensuing family drama has been fodder for the French media for years.)

Posters for the FN feature burning police cars, Islamic woman in burkas and a heavy emphasis on the tricolor flag imagery – often in the form of face paint on a young (white) Frenchman or woman. Appealing to the same fears of globalization and economic stagnation as the Trump campaign, the FN has monopolized on the seemingly universal fears of white members of the lower and middle classes – being left behind by a new wave of more intelligent and more qualified individuals of color.

“If Marine Le Pen and the Front National were to win in the French elections later this spring, that would be a serious blow to the EU that conceivably could be fatal since she and her movement have advocated a ‘France first’ policy that rejects the open-borders, open-markets policy of the EU and wants to turn inward,” Harvey said. “Brexit was a serious blow to the European Union, but Britain was a relative latecomer to European integration. It joined the EU in 1973 – about 16 years after its founding – and had always been sort of on the margins. France was one of the original founding members of the EU back in 1957 and has always been central to the European project.

“Several of the EU’s emblematic leaders have been French and so for France to pull out [of the EU] would be much broader and much deeper in its impact on the EU. France leaving would also leave the remaining EU much more of a German-dominated community – even more than it already is now – and also cause other states to want to pull out.”

Though the FN currently only holds two of the 577 seats in the French National Assembly, the damage Le Pen could inflict if she is elected should not be minimized. However, the recent decision by Dutch voters to reject Geert Wilders – another populist politician who advocated for immigration reform and the removal of the Netherlands from the EU – was certainly a positive barometer for the outcome of nationalist parties in other European elections this year.

“I think the combination of our election, Russia’s interference in our election and attempts to interfere in European elections, and the serious uncertainty President Trump sowed about US commitment to European security has had a sobering effect on voters,” Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Studies Program Barbara Hicks said in an email interview. “We saw the decline in support for the far right in the Dutch election, and polls for similar candidates are down in both France and Germany. Whether this will be another one of the lulls before new strides in integration or a more permanent decline remains to be seen. The Brexit process may crystalize for some what they value about European integration, while critics will be looking at it for assessing the costs of following the UK’s path. For the 19 countries in the Eurozone, disentangling from Europe would be much more difficult and costly than it is for the UK.”

France has generally been a left-leaning nation throughout its history, with its promotion of nationalized health care and higher education, support of unionization and extensive family and social welfare policies. The far-right, conservative regime of the Vichy era represents more of a blip in France’s political history than a symbol of an underlying current of right-wingers and conservative policies. Le Pen’s promise to pull France of the EU would be a huge blow to Europeanization efforts and to the fate of the EU as a whole.

“If you asked me before last year whether Marine Le Pen had a path to victory I probably would have said no,” Harvey said. “There’s a very good chance that Marine Le Pen will win the plurality in the first round, that she’ll get more votes than any other candidate, but then she’ll go into a runoff, presumably with a candidate representing the French political mainstream. Right now it looks like Emmanuel Macron, an independent running sort of as a centrist and a reformer, and most of the polls would seem to suggest that the two of them will probably be neck-in-neck after the first round but then all of the more mainstream support will sort of coalesce around Macron in the second round.”

Emmanuel Macron is the leader of the newly formed En Marche Party (EM), a socially liberal party created in April 2016. EM is the brainchild of Macron – it is no coincidence that the party shares his initials – and was developed as an alternative to the establishment progressive parties in France.

“What’s kind of interesting about it in a sense is that throughout the life of the fifth republic, since 1958, the second round – and really French governments – have been dominated by two big sort of middle of the road parties: the socialists one the one side representing the center-left and the Gaullists representing the center-right,” Harvey said. “If the polls are correct, this time we’ll have a run-off in which both of those – the main parties of post-war France – will be left out. You’ll have the Front National versus an independent candidate, who is a former minister in a Socialist government but doesn’t himself identify as a socialist and is sort-of a non-party reformer.”

Macron has been compared to Trump by media outlets for his lack of experience as an elected official and his personality-based platform that emphasizes his desire to change the French political system and his self-proclaimed credentials as an outsider candidate – even though he is a member of France’s technocratic elite with degrees from some of the country’s most prestigious and exclusive universities.

“Assuming Macron wins, he’ll have to try and build a governing coalition that will probably include the Gaullists – the Republicans – and will probably include the socialists,” Harvey said. “These are groups that don’t necessarily agree with each other on how France should be governed. I do think they’ll come together to block the Front National from gaining power, but they’ll have a very hard time governing. The  problems that France has faced in recent years with terrorism, with economic stagnation, with debates over migration and cultural identity – those will still be there and that’s what has sort of enabled the Front National’s rise in the first place.”

Information gathered from en-marche.fr, frontnational.com, nytimes.com and lemonde.fr.

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