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Populism Hits an Establishment Roadblock in Europe

Contra conventional wisdom, nationalist movements are having a hard time accessing real power.
AfD farage

Far be it from me to put down the French populist Right, given my respect for many of its representatives and for the Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front) in particular. But even given the shrinking favorability ratings of French President Emmanuel Macron and his République en Marche party, populists are not exactly surging in France or in most of Western Europe.

One might have to exclude from this generalization Mediterranean countries with unstable economies and frequently rotating governments—for example, Italy and Spain, where the populist, anti-immigration parties Lega Nord and Vox have made dramatic headway. But in Belgium, Holland, and Germany, parties identified with the populist Right typically poll between 11 and 13 percent. Populists there and in France generally do better in elections for the European Parliament than they do in other contests. Bill Wirtz, writing in these pages, rightly observes that EP elections often don’t involve domestic issues and don’t necessarily draw on the same voters who come out for other elections.

Establishment parties in France, Germany, Belgium, and Holland have worked persistently to keep populists out of their governing coalitions. In the elections for the French presidency and assembly two years ago, establishmentarians from across the spectrum banded together in the run-off to keep out the Front National.

Crossing the Channel, one encounters a similar pattern. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was going into eclipse by the time Brexit passed last year. But even at the height of its electoral successes in 2015, UKIP only controlled two seats in the House of Commons. And in an election that year, despite picking up 12.6 percent of the vote, it actually lost one of those seats. (It did pick up another by convincing a Conservative MP to change sides.) Its party leader, Nigel Farage, failed to get elected to the House of Commons.

In Britain, any populist party confronts, beside the usual obstacles, an electoral mechanism designed to keep outsiders outside. The reigning duopoly has diligently maintained a first-past-the-post system, which allows Conservative and Labour politicians to run every government by controlling who gets into Parliament.

And this may actually be preferable to how the German government tries to isolate its populist opponent, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The German high court has harassed the AfD with investigations into whether it represents a “threat to the German democratic order.”

According to polling on the upcoming French elections to the European Parliament, Le Pen’s and Macron’s parties are running almost neck and neck. But those numbers may not be especially significant. Only one party would consider entering an electoral or governing alliance with the RN: Debout France, which currently stands at about 8 percent in the polls. All the other parties, including the Trotskyists in Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, will gladly defend Macron’s multinational capitalist regime in order to keep the populist Right out of power.

Equally disturbing for French populists may be a new study by scholar Jérôme Fourquet, which underscores the increasingly obsolete assumptions of the RN leadership. Contrary to the idea that populists in France can grow by uniting the white working class with social traditionalists and nationalists (a policy that has worked in Italy and Spain), Fourquet demonstrates that the autochthons (les Francais de souche) are too fractured for that to work. The urban financial elites, whatever their ethnic origins, lean left on social issues. Most traditional Catholics in France support the RN, but their children are moving away from their parents’ values, having been heavily influenced by American popular culture.

Even the white working class is shrinking relative to France’s growing immigrant population. These migrants, now coming mostly from Northern and Central Africa, register a disproportionately high number of births. Among indigenous French women, the birthrate has fallen well below replacement level, while Third World immigrants, who make up slightly less than 10 percent of the population, now account for over 30 percent of new births. Barring unforeseen events, by the end of the century and possibly even earlier, immigrants may make up a majority of French voters.

Moreover, as Laurent Obertone notes in his heavily researched La France Interdite, the African and particularly the North African Muslim population votes for the Left with almost the same predictability as African Americans do in U.S. elections.

In this multicultural future, French populists may become a rare species. Obertone cites polls indicating that most French want to end immigration and almost half want to return African immigrants to their places of origin. Some 41 percent (in contrast to only 20 percent of Germans) consider themselves to be “nationalists.”

The question is why such views are not more fully reflected in the vote totals. The stubborn fact is that they’re just not—to the detriment of populists in France and across Europe.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.