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When Extremism Is Seen as Moderate...



France’s National Front, the far-right organization that has become a symbol of the xenophobic, Euroskeptic, nationalist reaction against the prevailing problems in Europe, has sent ripples across the world by topping the latest polls and winning a significant by-election.

Marine Le Pen, its leader, is busy giving birth to a continent-wide movement of like-minded leaders and parties. She has made progress in her dealings with Geert Wilders, the leader of the so-called Party of Freedom in the Netherlands.

The fortunes of various far-right European parties have given rise in recent years to fears of extremist takeovers across the Old World—whether we are talking about Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Austria’s Freedom Party or Britain’s UK Independent Party. Those fears have proven to be exaggerated. They have also tended to equate very different types of organizations. Greece’s Golden Dawn, for instance, is an openly violent, neo-Fascist type of organization, whereas the UK Independent Party stands for a more civilized kind of politics and has criticized France’s National Front for what it sees as vestiges of anti-Semitism.

Whatever the case, it is clear that a significant portion of the electorate has been moving towards far-right organizations. The National Front obtained only 6.3 percent of the vote in the elections to the European Parliament in 2009 and is now ahead of both the center-right UMP and the governing Socialist Party. Le Pen had already polled strongly in the presidential elections in 2012 with 18 percent of the vote. She has now built on her success while the UMP has been torn apart by warring factions in the absence of a decisive leader and the Socialists have paid a high price for the unpopularity of President Francois Hollande.

Whenever an extremist party that was once feared becomes acceptable to many mainstream voters, one can be sure that extraordinary circumstances have pushed people to lose faith in what used to be perceived as moderate. In other words, extremism and moderation switch places in people’s sentiments and perceptions. What was once seen as widely acceptable becomes extreme and vice versa.

What these far-right parties are saying about immigration, free trade and integration now sounds reasonable to people for whom economic hardship, particularly unemployment, as well as technological changes, shifts in production patterns and immigration have become intolerable—i.e., extreme challenges to their idea of security, predictability and identity. This is the truly dangerous part of the continent-wide rise of far-right groups.

The mainstream parties share a major responsibility in this state of affairs. Both the center-right and the center-left have propped up for many years a system that was not sustainable in the long run. The suffocating weight of the welfare state and the steady loss of competitiveness were never seriously challenged by them. Without major reform, European integration and particularly the common currency were bound to deepen the divide between the few countries that were better equipped for the future and the many that were not, and to bring into the open the profound inadequacy of the socialist model.

They now have. The result is a mindset that is changing among a significant group of voters the perception of what is extreme and what is moderate. This is where the Le Pens of this world begin to make sense to people who would otherwise never lend a ready ear to the discourse of the far right.

Unless the mainstream parties react by tackling the real causes of Europe’s troubles rather than trying to paper over the symptoms, these organizations will continue to make scary headlines.

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