Europe and the Ongoing Challenge of Right-Wing Extremism

Europe and the Ongoing Challenge of Right-Wing Extremism

Europe has consistently struggled to escape fully from the shadows of fascism and far-right politics. At various points since 1945, and despite continual attempts to forge European unity, mainstream political elites have been faced with a revival of public support for politicians or parties that are associated with fascism, anti-democratic ideas and prejudice. Whether expressed in strong performances by right-wing extremist parties at elections or periodic surges in levels of racially motivated violence, the landscape of postwar European politics has never truly been “far-right free.”

Far from being ephemeral, the far right in postwar Europe has proved to be remarkably resilient. So much so that, today, it could be argued that at no point during the entire postwar era has the challenge from this political tradition appeared so pressing. Though not successful within every party system in Europe, the far right has delivered a series of impressive performances across a series of recent elections. The 2012 presidential election in France, for example, saw almost 6.5 million citizens mobilize behind Marine Le Pen, who attracted almost 18 percent of the vote and secured the best presidential result for her party, the National Front, in its entire history. In the same year, in a contest that was widely regarded as a failure for the far right, voters in the Netherlands still awarded Geert Wilders’ explicitly Islamophobic Party for Freedom (PVV) with 10 percent of the vote and 15 seats in parliament. Nor does this support look set to subside: Since the election, opinion polls indicate that the PVV has become the most popular movement in Dutch politics. Meanwhile, farther north, in Denmark, the radical right polled more than 12 percent in the latest election, only a slight drop from the 13.9 percent it garnered in 2007.

In addition to generating often alarmist media reactions, these results undermine the popular assumption that the far right in Europe is only ever a “flash in the pan.” While mainstream elites and media have often dismissed far-right parties as short-lived protest groups, the reality is that across both Western and Eastern Europe these movements, and their supporters, are stubbornly persistent. Contrary to earlier predictions in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of far-right groups have created professional organizations and rallied coalitions of voters that have turned out to be just as loyal as their mainstream counterparts. Moreover, many of these citizens have continued to offer their support to the far right despite its failure to deliver on key promises when in coalition government. They have also remained loyal despite the departure of “charismatic” leaders, such as France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria’s Jörg Haider, who in earlier years were often held up as the main drivers of support for the far right.

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