🔒 RW Johnson: Right-wing surge in Europe – what it means for SA and the world

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National leads the French elections, ahead of the Left and President Macron’s centrists. The RN is unlikely to win a majority but could gain over 200 seats. Europe’s rising far-right sentiment is driven by resistance to mass immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, reflecting broader anti-immigration trends.

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By RW Johnson ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The first round voting in the French elections have put Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) comfortably ahead of both the Left and President Macron’s centre party. It is too soon to know if this will translate into a parliamentary majority for the far Right – that depends on how the centrists and other parties divide their votes on the second round. But the Left is led by the angry, divisive figure of Jean-Luc Melenchon and many centrists will undoubtedly abstain rather than vote for him. Raphael Glucksmann, leader of the centre-left, is a far more attractive figure. Much will depend on whether centrists can find a way of voting for him rather than Melenchon. Both the Left and the Centrists have agreed that their candidates will stand down wherever they ran third so as to maximise the anti-RN vote on the second round but it is by no means certain that this will prevent some third-placed candidates from running if they think they have a chance of winning.. 

What this probably means is that the RN will not win a parliamentary majority but will advance from its present 88 seats to well over 200 seats. For a clear majority it needs 289. The result is likely to be a RN minority government and continuing political instability.

Already the far-right Giorgia Meloni is prime minister of Italy and in Germany the far-right AFD has overtaken the SPD, the party of the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the polls suggest that it is still gaining. In the Netherlands the far right is now an influential part of the coalition government and elsewhere in Europe the far right is also on the rise.

Read more: Explainer: High-stakes run-offs – France’s election showdown

There is no mystery about this. Everywhere the common factor is resistance to mass immigration from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and in particular a strong resistance to “Islamisation”. Islam is widely disliked because Muslims generally don’t assimilate; because they often have reactionary views about women; because they are thought to want to impose their own civilisation – Koranic law and all – wherever they go, and because they are seen as ruthless and intolerant. Whenever a terrorist incident takes place anywhere in Europe people now expect the terrorists to have Muslim names – and they very often do. Even to lay out these bare facts is to run the risk of being accused of “Islamophobia” but they are just facts. It would be more productive to ask why no Europeans seem to have any animus against Confucians, Buddhists or Hindus.

What this produces in France can be seen in Eric Zemmour’s Reconquete party which stands to the right of the RN and just received 5% of the votes in the European elections there. Reconquete (Re-conquer) is consciously modelled on the Spanish reconquista when Catholic Spain, led by the Inquisition, drove the Muslim Moors right out of Spain in 1492. Zemmour points to the Islamised suburbs of the Paris Red Belt and says the only solution is “remigration” – the forceful mass deportation of Muslims. There is no doubt that such policies are popular way beyond the ranks of Zemmour’s party.

France has always been more liberal and tolerant in racial matters than many other countries, but there is an undeniable racial element to this as well. Most of the Muslims come from Arab North Africa or from Francophone West Africa or Central Africa – though there are also quite a few from Iran, Syria and Pakistan. France already has the largest Muslim population in Europe and the fear that the country could be overwhelmed by dark-skinned Muslims has long historic roots going back all the way to 732 when Charles Martel defeated the Muslim invaders at Tours. 

France is the particular cockpit of this struggle both because of the size of the immigrant population there and the fact that secularism (laicite) is a vital part of its republican culture. But the fact is that French fears are widely shared right across Europe and although the EU has tried hard to insist on a liberal attitude to immigration this has merely provoked a tidal wave of far right reaction. There is simply no doubt that all of Europe is getting steadily more resistant to immigration.

Africa plays a large part in such fears. Over the next generation Africa will add another billion people to its population and African states are far too rickety to provide all these extra people with housing, jobs, schools and health facilities. So enormous numbers of them will attempt to migrate to Europe (though research has shown that South Africa is first choice for many, perhaps most). Neither Europe nor South African can possibly cope with the tens or even hundreds of millions who would like to come.

However, Europe’s birth rates have been plummeting, far below replacement level in almost every case. This leads liberals to preach the virtues of immigration, urging that  a steady inflow of migrants is essential to economic growth and the staffing of vital social services. This is true enough but it is often very hard to preach that “immigration is good for you” to working class families who know that immigrants are pushing them back in the queue for housing, education or hospitals, let alone jobs. Britain, for example, has a housing crisis and many homeless people. The sight of illegal African immigrants crossing the Channel in small boats and then being accommodated – at public expense – in hotels stirs complete fury – and is pushing Nigel Farage’s Reform party ahead of the Tories in the polls.

Read more: 🔒 Macron, Le Pen: A guide to France’s high stakes election

In France Emmanuel Macron has warned that both the Left and the RN want to reverse his recent hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64 – and that this would be completely unaffordable. Jordan Bardella, the likely RN prime minister, has been cautious, saying that reversing the pension age is still the RN plan but it may take time. The RN knows that it has to avoid its first term in office ending in economic catastrophe for the main event – the presidential election of 2027 – still lies ahead. More likely, the RN will float populist immigration “reforms’ aimed at limiting or stopping immigration. Bardella himself is of immigrant (Italian and Algerian) descent but he is a wholly assimilated working class Frenchman from Seine Saint-Denis, once the reddest part of the Parisian Red Belt. For the French working class has long deserted the Left and now votes mainly for the RN. Its place on the Left has now been taken mainly by immigrant voters, particularly Muslims. This is, indeed, the scenario in Michel Houllebecq’s famous novel, Soumission, in which a Left victory at the polls acts as a Trojan horse for the Islamisation of France. 

Inevitably, the Left’s dependence on the Muslim vote has undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of many. But all over Europe the Left has fallen into this trap and its strength and significance has declined as a result, just as the far Right’s has risen. Except that is, in Denmark where the Social Democrats looked hard at what was happening. Their working class voters were firmly against large-scale immigration and for some time the SD leadership saw its job as preaching a more pro-immigration message to their followers. 

“But then we looked at what was happening elsewhere”, the SD leader, Mette Frederiksen explained, “and we realised that throughout Europe this had led to socialist parties losing the workers and becoming parties of middle class intellectuals and immigrants. And that just leads to defeat and reaction.” So the SD swung round, adopting a radical economic programme but opposing mass immigration. Sure enough, it kept its working class base and won the elections of 2019 and 2022. Today it remains part of the governing coalition. The far Right Danish People’s Party, which had taken 27% of the vote in 2014, thereafter withered almost to extinction.

For anyone on the Left both the rise of the far Right in France and elsewhere – and the Danish exception to that trend – has many lessons. Mainly, though, the Left has been caught up in moralistic crusades, treating anti-immigration attitudes as racist, and then finding itself losing its traditional constituency. Yet, in any sovereign state the question of how much immigration you want is surely a pragmatic question. No major Asian country – Russia, China, India, Japan – allows large-scale immigration and this draws no comment. 

The British Labour Party is already quite far down the road that the Danish SD avoiderd. Its support is now better defined by age and educational qualification rather than social class and it is uncomfortably dependent on the Muslim vote. At the same time, Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration Reform Party is pulling away many working class voters. Keir Starmer needs to look across the Channel and think hard about the lesson that teaches.

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