Until the beginning of the 21st century, political science generally defined the “far right” differently from the conservative and the liberal right on several fundamental points, even though definitions varied depending on the author. Adhesion of the traditional right to an all-inclusive concept of the nation, and thus to a contractual definition of national identity, seemed to be the non-negotiable point that prevented a complete unification of the right on the European level, which would have put an end to the ostracism, since 1945, of any ideology or political formation suspected of complacency in the face of racism and xenophobia, not to mention anti-Semitism.
At this point, there emerged several political formations that revealed the existence of hybrid populist and xenophobic rightist movements that met the needs of governments at certain points in history, movements that were situated midway between total opposition to the “system” and participation in it resulting from important electoral victories. This can be exemplified by the ideological metamorphosis of the old Swiss agrarian party, the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC); the breakthrough of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), under the leadership of Jörg Haider; the enduring participation of the Northern League (Lega Nord) in the Berlusconi governments; the role played by the Danish People’s Party (Folkeparti) in Danish political life; and finally the brief thunderclap of Pim Fortuyn’s List over the Dutch political landscape.
While traditional anti-fascism continued to watch for an emergence of xenophobic populism along the classic lines of the 1930s and 40s, the right in Europe was revising its political software. The most radical realised that they would remain beyond the pale if they did not make at least some concessions to the democratic way of doing things.
Far-right putsches hardly occur any more, presumed fascism leads to ostracism and neo-Nazism is a marginal counter-culture without a political future. In rightist governments, the need to win over voters from nationalist-populist parties and several fundamental transformations have led to an unprecedented ideological offensive based on support of three values: law and order, anti-immigration and a restrictive view of national identity.
What is happening at the extreme right of the political battlefield? A new subset of political families has been born, consisting of rightist populists and radicalised xenophobes. Some of them are rightist splits from liberal or conservative parties (Wilders comes from the Liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and his political trajectory resembles that of Philippe de Villiers in France); some are established formations that have undergone radicalisation (like the Swiss People’s Party (UDC) under the leadership of Christoph Blocher); and sometimes, they are new players like the Northern League in Italy. They share a severe criticism of the disconnect between the élite and the people, leading to opposition to a representative democracy that has lost its way and to advocacy of a direct democracy that allows government based on voices coming from “popular common sense”. They also share a wish to distinguish between a right that is a false right, permeated with cultural relativism, permissiveness and the “politically correct”, and a right completely without complexes, ideologically on the offensive and promoting a form of national identity that breaks with a tradition that respects the idea of a social contract. At the heart of the debate is a critical approach to multi-culturalism, which is a clever screen to hide behind, and which can appear legitimate. It is easy to see that Umberto Bossi, for example, does not need to espouse traditional rightist values or to designate Islam (not Islamicism) as a conquering force, a factor in the dissolution of the national identity and a totalitarian ideology incapable of adapting to European civilisation. Under the all-encompassing cover of the extreme right, with the force of exclusion that this implies, these movements need to be examined more closely, in order to discern important innovations in the views and militancy of this subset of the right in Europe.
The first step in this modernisation is undoubtedly the construction of a political program of exclusion on the basis of the values of inclusion usually advocated by the left or the moderate right. The anti-Islam agenda of Fortuyn and Wilders is built on the need of European societies to preserve the acquired values of tolerance, equality of the sexes (even sexual freedom), secularism as regards the promotion of individual and entrepreneurial liberty, as well as behavioural freedom. As a corollary, these parties, as well as a number of formations of the uninhibited right, notably in France and Italy, make electoral inroads into popular segments of society that used to belong to the left, rehabilitating demands for authority, law and order, work and meritocracy that are not fundamental values of the reactionary right but are an integral part of a workers’, or at least a popular, culture with conservative, authoritarian and often ethnocentric leanings.
The second novelty is to present a vision of national identity that differs fundamentally from that proposed by the liberal-conservative tradition, based, as it is, on the principles of 1789, or the notion of citizenship contractually acquired, based on the desire for universal values. In political formations of the populist type in Scandinavia, with the Swiss UDC’s Oskar Freysinger as well as with Umberto Bossi and his “young guard” of elected “league members”, identity rests on the nation, the Heimat, the homeland: it is essentially invariable, fixed in space, history and tradition, sometimes even, in ethnicity. It leaves no room for constructivist models like the republican nation, the federalist Europe of free movement, the global economy or world government It is often described as ethno-differentialist, politically reformulating the ideas of the New Right, which is radically different in terms of world view and as regards the classic and consensual idea of a national identity based on assimilation to the values of the majority. It is really a half-truth. In fact, the parties cited above, as well as those of lesser importance (Plataforma per Catalunya, Bloc Identitaire), put forward the homogeneity of the people on a certain territory, while Alain de Benoist, a founder of the New Right and GRECE, the French think tank, insist that “the ethno-cultural identity of different communities that live in France today should not be repressed in the private domain in order to be rewarded in the public sphere”.1 The debate is not anecdotal and is not confined to the extra-parliamentary or radical right. In the years to come, the right groups that are in government will confront a major problem in terms of their definition of what they consider to be the national identity. They either will continue to defend open citizenship, which will not allow them to appeal to voters from national-populist parties like the National Front (FN), or they will prioritise this appeal, and their position on the nature of the Nation will necessarily be “identitarian”. The old national-republican model of “the earth and the dead”, the exaltation of the nation-state and citizenship based on historically shared values, undoubtedly will be less attractive than that of an ethno-cultural identity that can articulate local, regional and national roots in the larger context of a European identity that is neither that of a “Europe that functions” nor that of an “institutional Europe”. In the case of France, this means that current policy, which applies a more and more restrictive definition of the conditions necessary to belong to the national community, sooner or later will come into conflict with this reality: for those who regularly vote for the FN, and particularly for the hard-core, French identity only can be acquired by ethnic Europeans, pre-supposing a Roman Catholic set of values as a cultural norm. All the efforts of the right – at least in terms of words – to chase votes on FN territory are likely to fail, because focusing on the notion of national identity pre-supposes coherence among different levels of identity, from the closest (the province, the region, the “area”) to the most remote (European civilisation) passing through the Nation. On these grounds, the “identitarian” right-wing groups have a head start: “one land, one people” always will be easier to understand than promoting the “diversity” of the French elites by putting forward the legally inexistent notion of “French of foreign origin”.2
The latest novelty of these identitarian right wings is their break with certain structural weaknesses of the traditional far right, such as the focus on a charismatic personality, the importance of the “gender gap” and the hyper-personalisation of political management. The question of charisma is essential to understanding the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen and of Jörg Haider. It is much less pertinent in the case of the Northern League, the Norwegian Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) and the Danish Peoples’ Party (Folkeparti), which have succeeded either in compensating for the deficiencies of their leaders by ensuring generational renewal of their cadre and elected representatives, as well as by allowing the emergence of not one but several emblematic personalities (Northern League; UDC). This is what the Alleanza Nazionale did in Italy after its transformation from a neo-fascist party into a conservative formation along democratic and pluralistic lines. The leader’s charisma is often even absent or very relative, as in the case of Siv Jensen and Pia Kjaersgaard in Scandinavia, who only incarnate their organisation’s basic tendency, which far surpasses their personal aura. These last two examples testify also to the possibility of women winning the trust of voters in this political family, a novelty confirmed by the success of Krisztina Morvai who leads the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), the important role of Fleur Agema at the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and, from now on, that of Marine Le Pen at the helm of an FN that must modernise itself at all costs.
The future of identity-based political themes is part of a wider movement that, in the 1970s saw the emergence of ethno-pluralism, which Pierre-André Taguieff has shown to be a substitute for hierarchical racism. Reformulated after September 11, 2001 in the context of the “shock of civilisations” and of the designation of Islam as the principal enemy of European peoples, the identity theory seems to allow the far right progressively to insert itself into the “gray zone” situated on the fine line between the governing right-wing parties and radical populism. Its relative success at the polls, apart from the fact that it forces the conservative right to reformulate its doctrine of national identity to make it ideologically more pointed, demonstrates that the question of the relationship between ethno-cultural identities and the Nation will be one of the great intellectual and political debates of the years to come.
The above article is published in: transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue, 8/2011.