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The French elections showed the strength of the European far right — and its limits

(Photos: Getty Images. Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox)

To understand what France’s election means, and what it tells us about the rise of far-right movements around Europe, you need to understand two fundamental truths about the results.

The first is that it’s a historic victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen and her National Front party. Le Pen was one of two candidates who qualified for the second round, soundly beating the standard-bearers of both of France’s traditional establishment parties — the center-right Republicans and center-left Socialists. The once-reviled FN has clearly entered the mainstream of French politics.

At the same time, the election seemed to demonstrate the very clear limits of Le Pen’s popularity — and, potentially, European far-right politics more broadly.

Le Pen came in second in Sunday’s election, with 21.7 percent of the vote. The plurality winner, upstart centrist Emmanuel Macron, won with 23.9 percent. He’s her polar opposite in virtually every respect. She wants to restrict immigration to France and pull France out of the European Union; he supports keeping the borders open and proudly waved the EU flag at his final campaign rally. And when these two face each other one on one in a runoff in two weeks, Macron is very likely to win — every poll that’s been taken so far has him up by massive margins:

(Huffington Post Pollster)

The tolerant center, in France, appears likely to hold.

What we’re seeing in France mirrors what’s happening in much of Europe. After the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, the far right has seen a series of setbacks. From elections in Austria and the Netherlands to polls in all-important Germany, the far right is performing far less well than many have expected.

What these numbers suggest is that the far right has a political ceiling: that while its supporters may be hardcore, the majority of Europeans still recoil from its vision — at least for now.

“The populist radical right is at the highest in its support that it’s ever been,” says Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies European populism. “On the other hand, the narrative and the discourse that we’ve had over the last few years has artificially inflated its strength.”

How stable this situation is, however — whether the far right’s influence can be contained forever — is still a very open question. While the far right may have had a bad few months, the deeper forces fueling its rise remain very much at work. And even if it never wins another election, its success has already led to some mainstream parties adopting hardline positions on immigration and the EU.

The revenge of the center

The pushback against the far right really started in December 2016, when the runoff election in Austria’s presidential race pitted center-left independent Alexander Van der Bellen against the far-right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer. Polls showed a nailbiter, with many giving the edge to Hofer.

Yet Van der Bellen won by a decisive 8-point margin (54-46). Crucially, he won by mounting a full-throated defense of liberal values: His most successful campaign video featured an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor warning that “it’s not the first time something like this has happened,” calling on Austrians to reject bigotry and embrace Van der Bellen’s more open vision of Austria.

The next big test for the populists came in March. The far-right PVV in the Netherlands, led by a showman with a Trump-esque haircut named Geert Wilders, had called for a ban on Muslim immigration and withdrawing from the European Union (“Nexit”). For most of the campaign, Wilders’s party had led in the polls.

Yet come Election Day, the PVV fell way short of expectations. Wilders’s party won a total of 20 seats in parliament, a distant second to the incumbent center-right VVD’s 33. While the VVD has a fairly skeptical approach to immigration, it’s relatively pro-EU. Two pro-EU parties, the left-wing Greens and centrist D-66, saw significant gains (10 seats and seven seats, respectively).

And now we have the French election, by far the most significant of the three. Once again, the populist candidate underperformed early expectations — Le Pen led the polls for most of 2017, hitting a peak of 26.3 percentage points before declining in the past month and a half as Macron rose. There’s no guarantee that he beats her in the next round, of course, but Macron is so far ahead that a polling miss would make Brexit and Trump look like babytown frolics:

Meanwhile, polling for the German election in October is a race between two pro-immigration parties, incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. Alternatives for Deutschland, Germany’s far-right immigration skeptics, have spent 2017 in a state of civil war — its well-known leader is refusing to run as the party’s candidate for chancellor due to a lack of support — and has declined from a peak of around 12.5 percent in the polls to somewhere around 10.

All in all, it’s been a good five months for the pro-EU European center — and a pretty bad one for the far-right populists.

“The worst-case scenario we all had for 2017 ... was this set of dominoes falling,” says Yascha Mounk, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Academy. “That appears a lot less likely now.”

Why the far right is hitting a ceiling

Marine Le Pen.
(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The clearest explanation for this trend is the simplest one: Most Europeans, right now, are not anti-immigrant, anti-EU ideologues.

For years, European elections have been dominated by fights over economics, with center-left and center-right parties battling over just how large the welfare state should be. Far-right parties and their supporters, by contrast, aren’t really invested in these kinds of bread-and-butter issues. They’ve risen by calling into question basic ideas — commitments to the European Union and tolerance of minorities — that parties on both sides of the standard political divides have more or less assumed. (Britain has always been a bit of an outlier here; the Isles are historically more euroskeptic than countries on the mainland.)

What far-right parties are doing, then, is attempting to invent a largely new form of politics: one that calls for a radical reorientation of European society away from tolerance and continent-wide integration, and something closer to the kind of nationalist setup we saw in Europe prior to 1939.

There’s a reason we haven’t seen such a politics succeed since then, of course: World War II. The horror of the war and the Holocaust created a continent-wide aversion to nationalism and to anything that smelled like Nazi-style racism. The current far-right parties are running at this consensus with a battering ram.

They’ve gotten further doing it than most people expected, with their numbers surging across the continent after the 2015 refugee crisis supercharged European concerns about Muslim immigration. But when you’re starting from a place of delegitimization, where your ideas were seen by many as a betrayal of the nation’s fundamental values, even a major surge will leave you well short of what you need to control the levers of government.

The returns from the French elections show how this works in practice.

“Two-thirds of Le Pen voters chose her as their main choice. And they chose early,” explains Pippa Norris, an expert on populism at Harvard University. “That [means] her supporters are more secure, but she has more problems attracting supporters across from other parties — not surprising for any far-right or far-left candidate.”

Macron, by contrast, had a lot of backers who were less sure in their vote, and decided to vote for him late in the race. This, according to Norris, is “common with centrist candidates and parties” — it represents the fact that they’re pulling support from the political mainstream, people who might have voted for other candidates but decided that Macron was their best bet to beat Le Pen.

Indeed, the defeated candidates from the major parties — Republican François Fillon and Socialist Benoît Hamon — swiftly endorsed Macron over Le Pen after the results became clear. Their endorsements were explicitly grounded in their view of Le Pen as an enemy of basic French values.

The FN "has a history of violence and intolerance,” Fillon said in his concession speech. “Extremism can only lead to misery.”

It is, of course, possible that the losers’ appeals fall on deaf ears — and that Macron suffers what would be one of the largest two-week collapses in the history of modern democracy. Experts, however, consider it unlikely — precisely because of the FN’s inability to connect to voters in mainstream French society.

“What this shows is that the [FN] is an established political party … but one that’s still too polarizing to win,” Mudde says.

We are very far from out of the woods

The rise of the far right is not an accident, nor is it purely a result of the 2015 refugee crisis. It is the result of decades of immigration, especially of Muslim citizens, leading to a never-before-seen level of ethnic and religious diversity in a lot of European countries. Western European governments have, on the whole, done a very poor job selling their publics on the value of diversity and the need for tolerance. Many Muslim communities have closed in on themselves, rarely interacting with — or seeming to endorse — the continent’s secular values. An unrelenting wave of deadly terror attacks by Muslim fundamentalists across Europe has sparked anger and mistrust.

The result is a backlash, a kind of white riot, in France and elsewhere. The refugee crisis has helped fuel it, as did the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent eurozone crisis, which did major damage to establishment parties’ credibility. But the forces propelling the far right’s rise are not contingent on these events, and aren’t going away.

The question is: How far will this backlash take the far right? Will the core consensus on basic European values, the force that places a ceiling on far-right success, remain in place — or will it collapse in the coming years? We just don’t know enough to be sure either way.

Moreover, the far right can influence European politics even if it doesn’t ever grow strong enough to win the presidency in countries like France. There are already signs that they are forcing centrist parties, especially center-right parties, to tack against immigration and the European project, which means far-right parties stand a chance of getting much of what they want even without controlling governments.

You’ve already seen some mainstream candidates, like Fillon and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Denmark’s former prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, lean to the right in response to anti-immigrant sentiment. Fillon called for new quotas that would keep immigration to a “strict minimum,” Rutte wrote an open letter telling immigrants who “rejecting our values” to “act normal or go away,” and Thorning-Schmidt (a center-left leader!) promised to deny benefits to asylum seekers if they were unemployed.

Even if the far right stops gaining, and simply stays where it is in the polls, that still means there will be a sizable bloc of far-right voters that other politicians and parties will be eying hungrily. The question is how far to the right those parties will be willing to go — and how many of their own values they’ll be willing to potentially toss aside — in an effort to woo them.