There are still gradations, of course. Le Pen openly rails against immigrants. Sarkozy obliquely rails against immigrants. Hollande doesn’t really want to rail against immigrants—just to echo widespread sentiment against immigrants enough to be elected president. Even so, it has been the far right who has set the tone of this campaign: the mainstream candidates have, in the end, been reduced to courting the favors of Le Pen’s party.
All of this matters beyond France because, historically, what happens in Paris often portends what will happen elsewhere on the continent. It’s not just that most Europeans think of the French Revolution as the cradle of modern democracy. Even in contemporary terms, the country stands at the center of Europe’s political gravity. Up until now, populists have celebrated their biggest successes in countries like the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland. But France isn’t as small as the Netherlands, as politically dysfunctional as Italy, or as new to democracy as Poland. The sad spectacle of the last several weeks is the culmination of a wider European trend of accommodating the far right—and it may suggest it’s about to get much worse.
Like in France, established political parties across the continent at first vowed to shun surging populist leaders like Jörg Haider of Austria or Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. A cordon sanitaire was to unite all democrats in their fight against the far right threat. But unity did not last long. As populist parties in these countries gained in strength, traditional coalition governments, especially those formed by center-right parties, lost their majorities. Center-right leaders realized that to gain or preserve power they would have to cooperate with the populists. As a result, in one country after another, center-right parties that had once vowed to fight the far right have come to rely on them to prop themselves up.
By now, Austria, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands have all had governments that stood or fell by the grace of far right parties. Even leaders of countries like Britain and Germany, where populist parties have so far been unable to make any significant headway at the national level, have adopted some of their competitors’ slogans. In the last two years, for example, both Angela Merkel and David Cameron have emphasized the dangers of multiculturalism. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, some populists have even been able to form governments of their own: The current Hungarian government, led by the deeply illiberal Viktor Orban, is only the most extreme example.
The left in each case condemned the center-right’s willingness to sacrifice principles to electoral politics. But even as they tried to claim the moral high ground, they knew that many of the populists’ followers were recruited from the ranks of their own base. The temptation for leaders of the left to echo anti-immigrant themes has steadily grown; some have succumbed to it. In Germany, for example, the most famous populist is now nominally a member of the Social Democratic Party. Thilo Sarrazin, a well-known bureaucrat, wrote a best-selling book discussing, among other insidious themes, the supposed genetic inferiority of Turkish immigrants. Thanks to a half-hearted promise not to make racist remarks in the future, he remains a party member to this day.
It is always easy to overstate the importance of the latest shock to the system. Has this election really been better news for Europe’s far right than 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father (despite gaining fewer votes than she did two weeks ago) qualified for the second round of the presidential elections? Only time will tell. But if I am to hazard a guess, I would say that the 2002 election will be remembered as the moment when it became undeniable that many voters across Europe had come to agree with the new brand of anti-immigrant rhetoric. This year’s election, by contrast, will be remembered as the moment when Europe’s establishment decided to welcome those ideas into the political mainstream.
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