Europe’s Nationalists Channel Resentment in Culture War

Elections reveal a deep divide between an internationalist and a patriotic Western Europe.

Front national leader Marine Le Pen receives applause in La Baule, France, September 27, 2012 (Flickr/Marine Le Pen)

Last week’s European Parliament elections saw huge gains for nationalist parties across Western Europe, notably the Front national in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party. Both won more seats in the European assembly than either the mainstream conservative or socialist parties in their countries.

Andrew Sullivan, a British blogger, sees evidence of a “blue-red culture war over modernity” in the results, one that is similar to America’s.

Following America’s political color scheme, Sullivan identifies “Blue Europe” as “internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural. Red Europe,” by contrast, “is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society.” While overly generalized, this is a divide that can probably be found in every Western country.

“The essential deal between these two complex coalitions was always a simple one,” argues Sullivan: “the Blues got to engineer their European dream, as long as it gave the Reds prosperity. Money would take the multicultural blues away.” And for a while, it seemed it did.

The start of the recent global financial crisis, and the European sovereign debt crises it produced, was the moment when the “deal began to fray,” according to Sullivan.

It may have been when “Blue Europe” — with which Sullivan consciously identifies — became aware that a deep, cultural split in fact existed but evidence of it could be seen earlier. The Danish People’s Party almost doubled its seats in the 2001 election and went on to support a conservative government that curtailed immigration. Pim Fortuyn’s party nearly won the 2002 election in the Netherlands and other right-wing parties in the country subsequently became more critical of both European integration and immigration than they had been in the preceding years. France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the second round of France’s presidential election that same year, beating the Socialists into third place. All were harbingers of the rise of nationalist movements which would likely have been dismissed as fringe a decade ago.

“Red Europe,” then, asserted itself years before the financial crisis happened — and until recently, much of “Blue Europe” simply wouldn’t recognize it.

Where Sullivan is right again, however, is when he observes that it’s mainly “Blue Europe” — “the elites, the property owners, the transnationals” — that is prospering as growth returns, leaving ordinary working- and middle class Europeans in the dust. “That fuels another layer of mistrust and despair.” It manifested itself, for example, when France’s Socialists legalized gay marriage last year. Marine Le Pen’s Front national, supposedly a conservative party but one that is also opposed to free trade and globalization, led the opposition against marriage equality.

“Mass immigration or migration across Europe,” writes Sullivan, “only made things worse, leading to resentment and racism when it has occurred in already beleaguered working-class Europe. The emergence of an unassimilated Muslim population didn’t help things either. And, more to the point, Europeans increasingly feel they are not given a choice in any of this.”

Hence the low turnout in European Parliament elections — 43 percent in 2009 and this year — and hence the growing support for nationalist parties that channel this resentment.

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