The European Elections: A Paradigm Shift for the Far Right?

By Searchlight Team
By Martin Smith

The evening the French European election results were announced, Marine Le Pen held a party at a swanky night club in the woodlands of the Bois de Vincennes, east of Paris. It was a select gathering of dignitaries from the far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National – RN). In attendance was the party’s poster boy, Jordan Bardella.

They had cause to celebrate. Le Pen’s RN had won 31 percent of the vote, gaining 30 European Parliamentary seats (a 12-seat increase on the last European election), whereas President Macron’s Renaissance Party lost more than half its previous seats and votes.

Table 1: The European 2024 Parliamentary Election Results (Published by the European Parliament)

he results were a crushing blow for Macron. A jubilant Le Pen declared at her celebration, “We are ready for power if the French people put their trust in us”. Bardella pushed even harder, “The President of the Republic cannot remain deaf to the message sent this evening by the people of France.” He then went on to demand Macron call an early election.

Macron’s response to the gauntlet thrown down by Bardella was quick, unambivalent and risky. Announcing a snap election he said, “I’ve heard your message and I will not let it go without a response. France needs a clear majority in serenity and harmony, I cannot resign myself to the far-right’s progress in France and everywhere in the continent.”

His statement is revealing, both acknowledging the scale of the vote for the NR and the rise of the far right across Europe. The RN’s results should not be downplayed, they were a huge blow for the centre parties of Europe.

It is with some justification that Macron believes France is the powerhouse of the European Union and he is the driving force of the centre parties. Now the world’s eyes will now be focused on the French general election that will take place on 30 June, with the second round on 7 July.

The French results were the high point for the far right in Europe, but there were many other significant results (See table 1 and 3). Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s fascist Brothers of Italy more than doubled its seats in the EU parliament, coming first with 24 seats, securing 28.81 percent of the vote.

An overjoyed Meloni stated that she was, “emboldened by the results” and vowed to play a fundamental role in Europe. Despite a strong challenge, Viktor Orbán’s populist far-right party Fidesz topped the Hungarian polls winning 11 seats and gaining 44 percent of the vote. Also, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) came first in Austria, winning six seats and gaining over 25 percent of the vote. Finally, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang came joint first with three seats.

In Poland, although Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition (KO) came first with 37.6 percent of the vote, the total vote for the far right was significantly larger. The right-wing populist PiS (Liga Polskich Rodzin) ran Tusk close, winning 20 seats (36.2 percent of the vote) and the fascist far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) came third wining six seats and 12.1 percent of the vote.

Several far-right parties also came second and third. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) was rocked by scandals involving its candidates’ support for the Nazis in the run up to the election. Despite this it still managed to beat German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD to second place.

The AfD won 15 seats gaining 16 percent of the vote. In the Netherlands, Gert Wilder’s far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) came second winning six seats.

Other important votes for the far right included third places for Spain’s Vox and the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR). In Bulgaria the ultranationalist Revival Party came fourth in both the Euro Elections and the parliamentary elections, which were held on the same day.

The levels of support for the far-right has sent shockwaves throughout Europe. Not only did it force Macron to call a snap election, but the Belgium prime minister also resigned after his Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD), suffered a heavy defeat in the European Parliamentary elections. A new government will be formed, it is unlikely that Vlaams Belang will be invited to join it, but the new government may coalesce around the separatist right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

Finally, in Austria a general election is set to be held on 29 September 2024, the far-right FPÖ currently top the polls. By September the political map of Europe could be redrawn again.

There were some setbacks for the far right, most notably the decline in support for Fidesz, the Czech Civic Democratic Party and Matteo Salvini’s Lega per Salvini Premier (LSP). Despite these setbacks across much of Europe the far-right is in the ascendancy.

The Response of the mainstream media

Left 36 -1S&D 135 -4Grn/EFA 53 -19
Renew 79 -23EPP 189 +13ECR 73 +4
ID 58 +9NI 45Others 52

Table 2 Seats summary by political grouping. +/-change from the outgoing parliament (compiled by author)

When the results were announced the mainstream media gave a collective sigh of relief focusing on the fact that the centrist parties still hold the majority of seats in the European Parliament (See Table 2). This is true, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is the biggest bloc, gaining 13 more seats (189) compared to the 2019 elections. While the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) vote remained relatively stable, only losing four seats, the liberal Renew group was decimated, losing 22 seats and the Green bloc lost 19 seats.

The idea promoted by the media that the centre is holding ignores the far right’s paradigm shift across Europe; its overall vote has increased by five percent. This is part pf a long-term trend that has seen the far-right making similar size gains in the European elections of 2014 and 2019.

Another area the media has focused on during this election is the sharp differences between the far-right parties, arguing it makes it impossible for them to unite. The respected political scientist, Cas Mudde, reinforced this view, stating in the Guardian, “Although polls predict huge gains for the far right, its deep divisions mean that the victory may prove to be a pyrrhic one”.

Currently the far right in the European Parliament is found in three different groupings. The first, Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), although founded by the British Conservative Party, is now dominated by the Brothers of Italy, PiS and Sweden Democrats.

The second formation is Le Pen’s Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which includes the RN, Vox and the PVV. The final grouping is the non-attached members (NA) grouping, this includes parties of the radical left and right. Included in this group are Fidesz and the AfD. If you add together the ECR, ID and far right NA MEPs it would be the second biggest bloc in the European Parliament.

There are deep divisions within the ranks of Europe’s far right. Both Orbán and Le Pen have close ties with Putin’s Russia and their support for Ukraine and NATO is at best lukewarm. On the other hand, the PiS and Meloni back NATO and are solidly behind Ukraine.

These differences should not be downplayed; it is a truism to say that the far right is a band of warring brothers. During the election all the far-right parties campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket, in defence of the family and against “gender ideology”. It would be in their interests to try and overcome these existing political hurdles and create a powerful far-right bloc in the European Parliament.

There is evidence that this is already happening, Meloni and Le Pen have been making overtures about uniting and Obán is also looking for new partners. The growth of the Conservative Political Action Conferences demonstrates the developing links between global extremists and the possibilities of building a right-wing parliamentary block.

Only a decade ago it was widely argued in academic circles that right-wing electoral parties were strongest in eastern Europe because of the economic and social dislocation produced by the transition from communism to free market capitalism.

The growth of the far right across western Europe clearly demonstrates that this no longer the case. One of the most worrying developments is the embedding of the far right in the “big three” European powers – France, Italy, and Germany.

Some wider implications of the European Parliamentary election results

Far-right parties are shaped by national historical and social factors, but there are also factors that cut across national boundaries. One important factor is the “normalisation” of the far-right. The electoral success of all the far-right has been its ability to put forward simple solutions and populist slogans to complex problems.

The key mobilising issue for the far-right is its anti-migrant and anti-Islam message. Instead of challenging the lie that migrants and refugees are responsible for poverty and the decline in services, mainstream parties are copying and introducing their own anti-migrant / refugee policies.

This is creating a toxic vortex. Thus, we see a legitimisation of the far-right, which in turn reinforces the idea that immigration is the problem, which in turn encourages the far right to be even more emboldened in its anti-migrant and racist rhetoric.

During the election all the main far-right parties used antisemitic tropes (Soros conspiracy theories and talk of global elites) and brazen Islamophobia. They are not, as some claim, diluting their hard-line anti-immigration message, instead they are attempting to popularise it.

Since the end of World War Two and right up until the late 1990s mainstream European parties placed a “cordon sanitaire” around the far right. Most politicians would refuse to debate with the far right and, with the exception of Italy, parties would not countenance entering into coalition with the far right. This was an important stance; it was a clear demonstration that fascism and right-wing populism were toxic and shared much of the ideological worldview of Mussolini and in some cases Hitler.

This “cordon sanitaire” is rapidly breaking down. The electoral success of many far-right parties means that many mainstream politicians of the centre right have accepted them in their electoral coalitions.

In the Netherlands Gert Wilders and the PVV now leads a coalition government, which includes the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the centrist New Social Contract. In the Swedish Riksdag the Sweden Democrats have a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the centrist government and in the Czech Republic the right-wing populist Civic Democratic Party (ODS) heads up a coalition with an assortment of Christian Democratic, and liberal conservative parties.

With electoral success comes massive financial rewards. Every MEP receives a monthly pre-tax salary of €10,075 as well as a general monthly expenditure allowance of €4,950. MEPs also get a monthly budget of €28,696 to cover all costs involved in recruiting personal assistants and they are reimbursed for their travel and accommodation.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Buried in the European Parliament’s website is the annual budget awarded to each European grouping. So, for example in 2021 the ECR was allocated €4.1 million and the ID €4.6 million. These eye-watering amounts of money will enable the far right to further professionalise its electoral machine, pay full-time organisers, provide access to research and fund its publications.

Traditionally young people have tended to vote for left of centre parties. However, a worrying trend which was also present in the 2024 European Parliamentary elections is the growing support amongst young people for the far right. In France, a poll conducted just before the election revealed that 32 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds said they would vote for the NR.

Likewise in Poland, exit polls showed that the far-right Confederation was the most popular choice with voters aged 18-29, polling at 31 percent of the vote. A similar picture can be seen in Belgium where the Flemish far right VB party is winning support amongst young men (aged 18-27), nearly 32 percent said they would vote VB.

Defining the far-right

During the election BBC reporters have described far-right parties as either “hard right” or “extreme right”. This does not provide an adequate explanation of their historical roots, ideology, or political practice.

We now find ourselves in the bizarre position where the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, only labels the ID as far-right. In her view the ECR is described as conservative grouping, despite the fact that the grouping is headed by the Brothers of Italy and contains PiS and Vox MEPs.

The danger of Leyen ignoring the political make-up of the group is that downplays the size of the far-right in the parliament and also mainstreams them. In this article, we have used the term far right, but if we are going to better understand these parties, we need to be more precise with our terminology.

The first far-right formations in the European Parliament are the right-wing populists, these include Fidesz and the PiS. Outside of the European Parliament you could include Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.

Then there are those that could be described as post-classical fascist parties such as the Brothers of Italy, RN and the SD. These formations have similar political features as their populist parties, both campaign against migrants, Muslims, and elites and both formations are ultra-nationalistic to their core. Also, when in power they are authoritarian and promote the idea of the strong leader.

However, there are important differences. Cas Mudde has played a key role in developing a conceptual framework to define right-wing populism. He argues that it combines nativism, authoritarianism and populism.

Academics Roger Eatwell and Mathew Goodwin focus primarily on a demand-side explanation to define right-wing populism, which they call the “Four D’s”. They are (1) “Distrust” of liberal democracy and elites: (2) “Destruction” the loss of national identity; (3) “Deprivation” the belief that inequality is growing, and the indigenous population is being left behind; and (4) “De-alignment” the weakening of the bonds between people and the traditional parties.

Post-classical fascist parties differ from their populist friends in several ways. They have ideological/historical links with previous fascist parties.

Secondly, in a search for electoral success they have undergone a process of “modernisation”. Le Pen and her father were the architects of this strategy. It involved cleaning up the party’s public image, dropping aggressive anti-capitalist rhetoric, and toning down its racism and antisemitism and instead promoting the ideas of nation rather than race.

Finally, powerful electoral machines replaced the street thugs. Two things are worth noting, the modernisation strategy undertaken by all post classical fascist parties has both created internal tensions and splits and their past adherence to fascism haunts their electoral campaigns.

It is important not to treat these formations as static entities. They are in a constant state of flux and there is a growing cross fertilisation of ideas between the two traditions. Increasingly they are both prepared to adopt each other’s strategies and policies. Understanding the nature of these parties and the political strategies they develop is not just an academic exercise, it enables anti fascists to recalibrate their campaigns and better understand how to undermine them.

For instance, in Britain, when the British National Party (BNP) shifted away from street fighting in the early 1990s and instead made a turn towards winning elections, anti-fascist groups had to change their approach and focus on local campaigns against the BNP.

CountryPartyNumber of seats & percentage of vote
AustriaFPÖ
6 seats: 25.4%
BelgiumVlaams Belang New Flemish Alliance3 seats:14.5% 3 seats:14%
BulgariaRevival3 seats: 14.4%
CroatiaHomeland Movement1 seat: 8.8%
Republic of CyprusElam1 seat: 11.2%
Czech RepublicN/A
DenmarkDenmark Democrats Danish People’s Party1 seat: 7.4% 1 seat: 6.4%
EstoniaEKRE1 seat: 14.9%
FinlandPS1 seat: 7.6%
FranceNational Rally Reconquest30 seats: 31.4% 5 seats: 5.4%
GermanyAfD15 seats: 15.9%
GreeceGreek Solution2 seats: 9.3%
HungaryFidesz-KDMP Our Homeland Movement11 seats: 44.9% 1 seat: 6.7%
IrelandN/A
ItalyBrothers of Italy Liga24 seats: 28.8% 8 seats: 9%
LatviaNational Alliance Latvia First2 seats: 22% 1 seat: 6.2%
LithuaniaN/A
LuxembourgN/A
MaltaN/A
NetherlandsPVV6 seats: 11.77%
PolandPiS Konfederacja20 seats: 36.2% 6 seats: 12.1%
PortugalCHEGA2 seats: 9.8%
RomaniaAlliance for the Union of Romanians SOS Romania6 seats: 14.9%
2 seats: 5%
SlovakiaRepublika2 seats: 12.5%
SloveniaN/A
SpainVox6 seats: 9.6%
SwedenSweden Democrats3 seats:13.2%
Table 3: The far-rights results by country (compiled by author)

Conclusion

The campaign against the far right in Europe has reached a critical phase and the French parliamentary election on the 30 June with the second round on 7 July will be of historic significance. If Macron’s gamble of calling an early election pays off, then Le Pen’s project will be set back. But if Macron fails, France will be governed by a centrist president and a far-right government, we will then be entering uncharted waters.

If historical parallels can be drawn, then there will be one of three possible outcomes. First, the RN waters down its political programme and governs France as a mainstream conservative party, second it could atrophy and implode in factional infighting, finally it could pursue a radical right agenda the like of which we haven’t seen since the 1930s.

One thing is definite, working-class people and ethnic minorities will be expected to pay a heavy price. French anti-fascists have agency, and they will have to campaign like never before to ensure the RN is beaten back.

In Britain the Conservative Party is badly weakened and looks set to be defeated in the upcoming general election. We are witnessing the emergence of a new far right populist Nigel Farage and his Reform UK. We are also seeing the revival of Tommy Robinson and his street thugs.

Since the 1960s, Britain’s far right has made its most significant electoral gains when Labour was in office. That was true in the 1970s when the fascist National Front began to grow and in the first decade of this century when the BNP reached its electoral zenith. As far as any revival of the far right goes, Britain may only be a few years behind Europe. We too could be heading into the perfect storm.

One response on “The European Elections: A Paradigm Shift for the Far Right?

  1. Barbara Finch

    It would be useful to know about any connections between far-right parties and militarist and violent organisations. I seem to remember reading that Marine Le Pen’s party has connections with such groups in the Bordeaux area. Have you any information on that?