Looking for the right mask

Print edition : November 29, 2013

English Defence League members during an anti-Muslim rally in London in September 2011. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Marine Le Pen, president of the French right-wing party Front National. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP

Godfrey Bloom, UKIP member who was suspended for making sexist comments. Photo: Luke MacGregor/REUTERS

Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigrant UKIP. Photo: LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS

Tommy Robinson (left) and Kevin Carroll, leaders of the anti-immigrant English Defence League. Photo: CARL COURT/AFP

Across Europe, the Right is going through what commentators see as a process of “sanitisation’’ whereby it is trying to shed its “nasty party” image and appear more inclusive.

GIVEN the current buzz about the "rise" of the European Far Right following its better-than-expected performance in a string of local elections, one could be forgiven for believing that Europe is in the midst of a right-wing “revolution”. There is talk of a “return” to the dark days of fascism as people look for political alternatives to “save” them from the devastating impact of the economic crisis and the harsh deficit-cutting austerity measures.

“If we allow these forces to gain a foothold on our continent once again, we will have wasted a century of building closer ties and condemned history to repeat itself,” warned a former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, urging mainstream parties to stand firm against the forces that, he said, fuelled the Second World War.

No doubt, the growing sense of insecurity and political instability caused by the recession has been good for extreme right-wing parties, who have played on people’s fears, to present themselves as a credible alternative. There is widespread public disillusionment with mainstream parties, accused of being too elitist and pursuing “anti-people” policies. And the Right has been able to exploit this anger to pick up seats in provincial elections in Britain, France, Italy, Greece and Austria, to name just a few countries in the grip of a supposed right-wing wave.

So, Verhofstadt is right in warning that there is no room for complacency. But there is also the view that the threat is being exaggerated and that, inadvertently, we are helping the Far Right to raise its profile when the right response should be to deny it any oxygen of publicity while working quietly on the ground to counter it politically.

Look closely and you will find that the so-called Right resurgence is rather deceptive. A few odd electoral successes, however impressive, cannot be read as an endorsement of its toxic agenda on the national level, or a wholesale rejection of the post-War liberal consensus that has served Europe so well.

Such a reading will be misleading even after allowing for the fact that the Right’s hatred of immigrants and Muslims resonates with a significantly large number of voters, especially the white working class electorate in small towns.

The media hype over the upsurge in the Far Right vote may be a well-intentioned warning against the creeping rise of ugly nationalism in parts of Europe. But it also feeds into the claims of right-wing parties that people are so “fed up” with the present political dispensation that they are waiting to embrace any alternative vision of society. That is nonsense. “Stunning” though their recent poll performance may have been, it does not translate ipso factointo a wider acceptance of their vision of “fortress Europe”—a land of pristine white glory and reactionary conservative “values’’ where there would be no foreigners, no homosexuals and no Muslims; where women will have no rights and the disabled will be treated as outcasts, with only the fittest allowed to survive.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Europeans are enlightened and sophisticated enough not to buy into such a corrosive idea of Europe. And the Right knows it.

Whether it is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, the Front National (FN) in France or Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, all are being forced to soften their image and reinvent themselves in order to appeal to a broader audience beyond their historically narrow pool of supporters. They are acutely unconscious that in their current—racist, homophobic, misogynist—avatar there is no hope in hell for them to make much headway and hence a desperate rush for a makeover.

Across Europe, the Right is going through what commentators see as a process of “sanitisation’’ whereby it is trying to shed its “nasty party” image and appear more inclusive. It is somewhat akin to what, in India, Narendra Modi is doing to win Muslim support.

Massive facelift

So, the locker-room rhetoric is out, replaced by noises about vague “European values’’ and reaching out to all “ordinary hardworking” people. The biggest boost to the European Right in recent weeks has come from the dramatic victory of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in a byelection in southern France prompting her to boast that FN had become France’s “first party”.

So, how did this happen? It did not happen on the back of the party’s old xenophobic policies, which under her father Jean-Marie’s leadership had pushed it into political wilderness after that one rare moment in 2002 when he forced the French presidential election into a second round by beating the socialist contender Lionel Jospin in the first round thanks to very high absenteeism.

Today, FN is a very different kettle of fish from the one Marine Le Pen inherited from her father. It has had a massive facelift to remove all the old wrinkles that the ordinary voter found so repulsive. It is now all new and shining. So much so that Marine Le Pen has forbidden the media from calling it racist. She has threatened to sue anyone who calls FN racist. “You’ve got to stop calling us what we are not,” said Marine Le Pen, who took over from her father three years ago.

This is how a London-based French journalist, Agnes Poirier, described its transformation from a party of thugs and skinheads to one that swears by the values of the Republique:

“Born in 1968, pro-gay and pro-abortion, the divorced single mother of three has cunningly managed to shed the old clothes of the traditional French extreme Right, which had been ultra-Catholic, royalist and racist. She has got rid of the skinheads in her entourage; she never talks of the Second World War and hardly ever touches on the Franco-Algerian war. That was her father’s turf. And unlike him, she’s yet to utter anything xenophobic.”

Marine Pen is said to have “even hijacked traditional Left ideas such as secularism, which she has twisted so that it is now used by the Right at large to get at France’s Muslim community”.

“So it is difficult to pin a label on the Front National. Ms Le Pen says she is just ‘mainstream’; her popularity seems to prove her right. When they hear her talk, many French people just see a politician who doesn’t pull punches, yet doesn’t sound hysterical. If on the economy her overtly protectionist rhetoric doesn’t convince, on the question of national identity she strikes a chord across a wide political spectrum,” Agnes Poirier wrote in The Times.

A friendlier UKIP

In Britain, the anti-immigrant and Europhobic UKIP is going through a similar makeover under its beer-swivelling leader Nigel Farage pumped up after pulling off an impressive show at this year’s local elections. It is trying hard to shed its image as a “party of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, as Prime Minister David Cameron famously described it.

In a sign that Farage means business, he recently suspended a senior party member of the European Parliament for making sexist comments. It is the first time he has punished someone for being off-message. The same member, Godfrey Bloom, has embarrassed the party in the past by making offensive remarks about immigrants and women (accusing women of “not cleaning enough behind the fridge” and calling African and Asian countries “Bongo, Bongo land”) but got away with them.

But that was then. Now the UKIP is in a different place after its recent poll wins and sees itself as a mainstream party with the ambition to replace the Tories as the main right-wing British bloc in the European Parliament. Like Marine Le Pen, Farage knows that the only way for the party to gain wider legitimacy and achieve its ambitions is to present a friendlier image and pretend to be a “normal” party. So, he has tightened up the criteria for party membership to filter out “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”; imposed stricter discipline on members as to what they can or cannot say in public; and, in the most significant move of all, he has refused to join a proposed pan-European alliance of right-wing parties.

“UKIP is not right wing but a libertarian party that believes in small government, low taxes, personal freedom and responsibility under a democratic national government, not under Brussels rule [Brussels being the capital of the European Union]. UKIP is not involved in this initiative by Geert Wilders [leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, PVV],” he said sniffly.

Forget the UKIP. Tommy Robinson, the foul-mouthed leader of the notorious English Defence League (EDL), a party of hangers and floggers who want every immigrant to go home and Islam to be banished, has quit warning against the “dangers of Far-Right extremism”.

“I have been considering this move for a long time because I recognise that though street demonstrations have brought us to this point, they are no longer productive. I acknowledge the dangers of Far-Right extremism and the ongoing need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas,” he said.

“When even Tommy Robinson thinks it is time to cut his losses, you know the extreme Right are dead-enders, more figures of comedy than fear,” wrote one commentator.

Even the Tories have had the political equivalent of the Botox treatment under Cameron in order to attract middle-of-the-road voters. They have even ditched the old party symbol, which reminded people of its Thatcherite past, and replaced it with a friendly green banyan tree to symbolise their claim to be “one-nation Tories’’ bursting with “compassionate conservatism”.

Elsewhere in Europe, fringe parties are busy sanitising their image to win over disillusioned fence-sitters—a sure sign that hard-right extremism is becoming increasingly hard to sell. This is not to play down the threat posed by them but to caution against panic reaction to their recent electoral wins.

In the past, such reaction has led mainstream parties to throw up their hands in despair and join the gang in a competitive race to the bottom on issues such as immigration and Islam. And it is already happening again. In France, a senior Minister has reacted to FN’s growing popularity by echoing its anti-foreigner rant.

“It is a measure of the panic over the FN on both the Right and the Left that Manuel Valls, the Socialist Interior Minister, could get away with saying that the Roma should be taken to the borders and kicked out,” wrote The Independent columnist Katherine Butler.

“It is in a climate where immigrant-demonising talk moves to a panicked centre-ground that it becomes acceptable for a Minister to contemplate something as shameful as physically dumping families at the borders. Britain prides itself on a more enlightened attitude to migration than France. But in both places, it’s easy to say you’re no longer an extremist when everyone else is wearing your clothes,” she warned.

Therein lies the danger of overreacting to a few right-wing triumphs. Yes, for a combination of reasons, people are being drawn towards populist propaganda but the response should be not to panic and scream that the “wolf is coming”.

The trick is to fight it with better policies but, sadly, the mainstream political establishment in Britain and across Europe has become too timid—and policy-lite.