Last night riot police had to be dispatched to disperse angry crowds in some of the French towns where the far-right National Front has been voted into power. While FN leader Marine Le Pen claims to have gone to considerable lengths to rid her party of the open anti-Semitism and xenophobia that marred its image under her father’s leadership, many remain skeptical about how much of an integral change has really taken place within the FN.
Yet for the first time since 1995 Le Pen’s party has mayors back in office, having won control of 11 towns in the local elections held this weekend. Indeed, from having just 60 councilors the party has jumped to some 12,000 as of the latest elections. This surge may become a familiar pattern in Europe, for amidst worsening economic conditions throughout many European countries, observers acknowledge a revival of far-right and neo-fascist forces, most notably with parties such as Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece.
In with this evident rise of nationalistic and anti-immigration parties some choose to include the improving fortunes of the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain. Writing for the Gatestone Institute, Peter Martino draws a direct comparison between Le Pen’s FN and Nigel Farage’s UKIP, noting that in both cases these parties have been able to exploit growing public dissatisfaction with the liberal ruling elite and the lackluster politics of the governing class. While UKIP is certainly an expression of a populist conservative backlash, it would be wrong to group it in with the far-right parties on the march in mainland Europe.
As with the first time that Europe was convulsed by the rallying of far-right and fascist movements, the impetus has been primarily economic. No doubt today’s far-right parties feed on general dissatisfaction with the multiculturalist policies promoted by Europe’s metropolitan politicians, but much of the anti-immigrant animus is undoubtedly being driven by dizzying levels of unemployment. In France unemployment exceeds three million where just 40 percent of the population has work. Socialist France has not run a surplus since 1974; it is unsurprising, then, that President Hollande, with his 75 percent top tax rate, is disliked by a record three-quarters of voters.
The New Yorker’s Alexander Stille has implied that the weekend’s election results stem from a failure of Hollande’s party to reform its socialist ways. Yet in casting their votes for the National Front, those who did so were hardly going for a more free-market option. Just like the populist right-wing parties of the past, Le Pen claims that her party is neither left nor right. When it comes to economic matters the FN is both undeniably protectionist and essentially anti-capitalist. Le Pen has actually called for still higher state investment and backs government control over everything from energy to financial services. And like other far-right European parties, such as Austria’s Freedom Party, the French National Front is vocally hostile to globalization.
Peter Martino does give recognition to the differing stance that FN and UKIP take on economic matters, but this difference is far more fundamental than might be initially apparent. UKIP has increasingly been stressing itself as the party of liberty, perhaps seeking to imitate at least some of the sentiments popular in the Tea Party. Its primary quarrel with the EU appears to be a democracy-oriented one; that Brussels’s bureaucracy is draining sovereignty from the British parliament and its electorate. More so than even the Conservative party, UKIP is presenting itself as the party of private enterprise and small business. Many in both the UKIP leadership and the rank and file have taken to describing themselves as libertarian–although one gets the impression that they don’t quite understand the term in the same way that Americans do. In many respects UKIP is the most socially conservative political grouping in Britain, the only major party to take a stand against the recent implementation of gay marriage.
While UKIP has voiced opposition to multicultualism, as well as to the political correctness that surrounds it, the party’s calls for reducing immigration levels seem not to be motivated by the xenophobia that its detractors allege. UKIP has won voters by condemning the mass flow of immigrants brought by the EU’s open border policy, but party spokespeople have emphasized that this isn’t a matter of race, claiming that they would much prefer to see highly skilled immigrants coming to Britain from other parts of the world than unskilled workers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Indeed, Farage has advocated leaving the EU on the grounds that Britain could then become more engaged with the global economy, a far cry from Le Pen’s protectionist anti-globalization.
Of course, both UKIP and the National Front expect significant wins in the upcoming EU elections, and both hope to expand their representation to their respective national parliaments at the first opportunity. Yet whereas anti-immigrant racism and anti-Semitism was very much the FN’s raison d’etre under Jean Marie Le Pen, it is not clear that this was ever the case for UKIP. As Martino also noted, UKIP refuses to ally with the FN so long as it has anti-Semites in its midst. Furthermore, in those instances where its own candidates have been exposed as racist they have been rapidly and unceremoniously ejected from the party. Across Europe the far-right may be benefiting from the economic difficulties currently marring the continent, but it would be wrong to throw Britain’s more liberty-oriented UKIP in with those parading neo-fascist tendencies.