Anti-Immigration Parties Drive Conservatives to Fringe

Euroskeptic and anti-immigration parties force Europe’s conservatives to move to the right.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front national, waves at supporters in Paris, May 1, 2012
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, waves at supporters in Paris, May 1, 2012 (Blandine Le Cain)

“Far right” or “extreme right-wing” parties have emerged across Europe in recent years, if with varying levels of electoral success, demonstrating that they cannot be termed as constituting a pan-European movement. But they do have characteristics in common. Chief among them, from the perspective of European politics as a whole, is that they’re driving mainstream right-wing parties to the fringe.

In several countries, including Britain, Ireland and Spain, the far right has repeatedly failed to garner a considerable share of the votes whereas in France, the Front national‘s Marine Le Pen got almost 18 percent support in the first round of last year’s presidential election, consolidating the nationalist party’s position as the “third force” in French politics.

The rise of far-right movements is closely linked to mass immigration into Europe, especially from developing countries that used to be European colonies and former communist states in Eastern Europe. The inclusion of some of the latter in the European Union has brought about a loss of national sovereignty in the traditional Westphalian sense, moreover, and has also served to foster a malaise among populations whose sense of national identity is in a state of flux. Right-wing parties tend to take advantage of this social identity cleavage within European communities, coupling it with an alarm over high immigration.

The ideological core of these movements is the concept of the sovereign nation state. Their narrow definition of who and what constitutes the nation is of key importance to understanding their motivations. In their view, the nation is confined to those within the territory who share the same culture and ethnicity. It is through this lens that far-right parties frame their political positions to their supporters, especially their Euroskepticism and opposition to immigration, and it allows them to draw on a disenfranchised element of society that is susceptible to simple explanations for complex problems.

Their alternative is conveyed to voters in uncomplicated terms. In juxtaposing immigrants against the “nation”, far-right parties present themselves as defending the latter against an “other” while avoiding the stigmatization of being overt racist. Both the Flemish Interest in Belgium and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands couch their exclusionary politics in terms of culture and religion instead of race — which would be far less popular.

In exploiting the issue of immigration, in contrast to not emphasizing other, less divisive elements of their manifestos, far-right parties not only increase their voting base but also drive the entire political spectrum to the right, thus consolidating a greater proportion of the vote than they might otherwise be able to garner.

For example, the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Euroskeptic and anti-immigration positions, popular on the British right, force the ruling Conservatives to adopt or at least echo these positions or risk losing voters in the next election.

The political fallout from the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London last month could also serve the interests of UKIP in much the same way as Mohamed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse last year proved of political benefit to France’s Front national. The party was able to highlight what it considers an Islamic challenge to France’s culture and secular traditions and forced President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives to raise their own anti-immigration rhetoric in order to lure right-wing voters during the second round of the presidential election for which Le Pen had failed to qualify.

Far right parties utilize such events for their own political efficacy and operationalize the issue of immigration by coloring their social policies with strong nationalistic hues. It is from this basis that we can best understand their inherent opposition to immigration and the very rational way they utilize actions of political terrorism which are viewed as a threat to the culture and society to which they belong, as a means to diffuse their policies within the mainstream political spectrum.

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