By smearing all opponents as fascists, the left blurs the line between democracy and thuggery
What is ‘far-right’? With the progress of Marine Le Pen to France’s presidential run-off, the term has been liberally used — as it has been over recent years across the West. Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and the Sweden Democrats are all said to be far-right, to name but three.
The fact that the first two of those groups engage in intimidation, racism and overt displays of political violence would ordinarily distinguish them from a peaceful democratic party opposed to mass immigration like the Sweden Democrats. Yet everywhere there is the same name creep. The website Breitbart is frequently called far-right, as is the administration of Donald Trump. So too is Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed white supremacist who last year whipped up a crowd of supporters doing Hitler salutes. Is nobody interested in the differences?
There was a time when the term acted as a useful cordon sanitaire, marking off actual fascists and neo-Nazis from the legitimate political ‘right’. But across Europe sections of the far-right, like the far-left, became more moderate. At the same time, the short-term political advantages of designating all opponents ‘far-right’ proved irresistible for some partisan campaigners.
Today there are groups that campaign against Ukip as ‘far-right’, leading one to wonder what political language they would use if the jackboots came, all their imprecations having been expended on corduroyed ’Kippers? Such overuse of the term has eroded the boundaries it created, making many people suspicious of all such designations. Many people — especially young people — are less suspicious of the National Front than they perhaps ought to be because they have seen people who do not deserve the label ‘far-right’ being branded in precisely such a way.
Over recent years, while travelling across Europe to research my book on the migration crisis, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam, I have come across a number of the parties generally termed ‘far-right’. Some clearly demand the label (if it means, essentially, ‘fascist’). Others — among whom I would include the Sweden Democrats — it seems to me are being smeared by the term. They have a past on the political extremes, as many parties on our continent do, but if we allow movement on the political left, surely we must allow it on the political right? Perhaps we are resistant because, as Cavafy said of the barbarians, we seem to need them. They are a force against which we can orient ourselves in an era when few other things in politics seem certain.
Yet our arguments and definitions are stale at precisely the time when they need to be at their most limber. Consider the trouble Marie Harf (a spokeswoman for the State Department during the Obama administration) had in a recent TV interview when she called Le Pen ‘far-right’ and was asked what this meant. ‘To me it means her policies on immigration, her policies on secularism in France, which has long been sort of a French tradition. Today she [Le Pen] said: “Let’s close all the Islamist mosques.” That’s a pretty far-right position to take even in the wake of a terrorist attack. She has at times called for a complete shutdown of immigration. Combine that with her flirting with getting out of the EU, with getting out of Nato.’
It may seem unfair to single out such witterings. At least Ms Harf had a go at answering the question. Of course, far from being far-right, Le Pen’s views on secularism are broadly within the views of the French and American republics. And if it is far-right to ‘flirt’ with the idea of getting out of the EU, what are we to call the British public, who didn’t merely flirt with the idea of leaving the EU, but actually voted for it by a majority? As for it being far-right to ‘flirt’ with getting out of Nato, then we must describe President de Gaulle — who pulled his country out of the alliance in 1966 — and four decades’ worth of his successors (including President Mitterrand) — as far-right.
In an unusually fair and balanced piece on its website entitled ‘What makes Marine Le Pen far-right?’, even the BBC struggled to answer the question it had set itself. With his infamous anti-Semitism and Holocaust minimising, nobody would doubt that Marine’s father Jean-Marie could be called ‘far-right’. But are we to take his daughter’s abjuring of her father as counting for nothing? When she herself said that the French nation should not be held accountable for the actions of Vichy, her critics immediately pounced: she is her father’s daughter!
But what she said (playing to an ugly part of her base though it may well have been) was also a statement that the British government of the day (which recognised only the Free French) would have agreed with. Certainly there is some distance between this and Holocaust denial, which exists in her party, certainly, but would not appear to be Marine’s bag.
Perhaps what people really mean by far-right today relates to the Islam and immigration business. Yet what has Marine Le Pen said on this that Europe’s political mainstream has not?
On the campaign trail last year, former president Nicolas Sarkozy promised to lead a ‘merciless war’ against Islamic extremism, adding: ‘In France the only community that matters is the French community. If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French.’ Is Sarkozy ‘far-right’? Or Mark Rutte? Before the recent Dutch elections the Liberal (VVD) party’s prime minister told immigrants: ‘Act normal, or go away.’ And: ‘If you live in a country where you get so annoyed with how we deal with each other, you have a choice. Get out. You don’t have to be here.’
As for shutting down extremist mosques: last summer — after Father Jacques Hamel was slaughtered in the sanctuary of his church near Rouen — the left-wing Manuel Valls (who was then prime minister) boasted that he would shut down extremist mosques in an effort to wipe out the ‘poison’ of Islamic extremism. In August, interior minister (later prime minister) Bernard Cazeneuve boasted of having shut 20 extremist mosques in that year alone. Cazeneuve represents the French Socialist party.
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, much has been made of the fact that Le Pen and her niece Marion are against gay marriage. But if that were far-right it would make every UK government until four years ago — and every government in the world before the present century — beyond the political pale.
Of course, to the residents of each country there are parties which have echoes that an outsider cannot always hear. Some of what understandably worries the French comes, like anti-Semitism, on the edge of a remark. But in each country on the continent I have travelled around, over-liberal usage of the appellation is grinding down the political gearbox. Not just because it is so often used to advance a particular cause (such as eliding the difference between openly racist parties and those which expel racist supporters), but also because once a ‘far-right’ tag is in the air, the brakes come off all political argument.
In February, Chatham House released a poll which asked 10,000 Europeans whether they agreed or not with the statement ‘All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped’. The majority of the public in eight out of the ten countries surveyed (including France and Germany) agreed with its premise. In only two countries was this a minority opinion. In one of them — the UK — only 47 per cent of the public agreed that all further Muslim immigration should be stopped.
Of course, the habit of the political left and mainstream right continues to be to call all such opinion ‘far-right’, even when it encompasses the majority of the public. However, doing so ignores political shifts occurring due to events rather than incipient fascism, and scares away mainstream politicians from addressing — rather than merely bloviating around — societal problem voters are asking them to tackle.
For now, it is largely agreed that Marine Le Pen is ‘far-right’ because her father is Jean-Marie Le Pen; that his is the tradition she comes from; that her party’s roots remain ugly and that she is pretending to be more moderate than she is to get into political office. It will help keep her from the presidency this time.
But Europe’s cordon sanitaire is straining and at some point may well break. Anyone who actually wants to contain the effluence should learn how to police the boundaries rather better — not to mention more accurately.