Column: Far-right politics is not limited to the United States | Columnists

According to Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the French National Front, the Holocaust is a “detail” of the history of the Second World War. “I don’t think there were that many deaths. There weren’t six million. There were no massacres as they say,” he maintained. Le Pen’s ideological views are rooted in xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. He was a very controversial figure in French politics. After leading the National Front for nearly 40 years, he was replaced in 2011 and four years later expelled from the party he founded.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is now largely in the spotlight in France. But his daughter, Marine Le Pen, who is seeking to become France’s next president, is not. Ms Le Pen is expected to come second in today’s election, which would allow her to qualify for a runoff against incumbent President Emmanuel Macron in three weeks (assuming Macron comes first or second today’ today but does not win more than 50% of the vote). This would put the National Rally (a renamed version of the National Front) within reach of the most powerful office in French politics.

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Such an event would not be unprecedented. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen rocked France when he came second in the first round of the French presidential election, leading to a runoff against then-incumbent Jacques Chirac. In 2017, the last presidential election in France, Marine Le Pen came second in the first round of the election and faced the current incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the second round. In both cases, the Le Pens were soundly beaten, with Jean-Marie overwhelming by a vote of 82 to 18, and Marine by a smaller but considerable margin of 66 to 34.

Emmanuel Macron is expected to win this year’s election. The Economist’s election prediction model gives Macron a 98% chance of winning. Yet it is troubling that someone like Ms Le Pen is (probably) coming within breathing distance of the French presidency. What explains his support?

As journalist and historian Anne Applebaum has pointed out in her book “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” today’s culture wars are reminiscent of the Dreyfus Affair of 1894-1906 in which Alfred Dreyfus, a captain Jew who spoke with a German accent, was falsely accused of being a traitor. The Dreyfus investigation polarizes French society. Anti-Dreyfusards, as they were called, made anti-Semitic appeals, pushed conspiracy theories, and accused those skeptical of the allegations against Dreyfus of being unpatriotic. They maintained their position even after Dreyfus’ innocence was established. The so-called Dreyfusards who believed that Dreyfus was innocent, on the other hand, argued that French citizens should be treated the same, regardless of their religion. Dreyfus was forced into exile in 1899 but was later brought back to France and pardoned in 1906.

Although the tension later eased, fault lines reappeared during the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. After the war, France became a liberal democratic state based on the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. But the divisions of the Dreyfus Affair continued to simmer below the surface.

Marine Le Pen is not Jean-Marie. As party leader, after deporting her father in 2015, she tried to “detoxify” and “humanize” the party. Still, she courted controversy, comparing, for example, street protests for Muslim prayers to the Nazi occupation of France.

Ms Le Pen’s views are similar to those of other far-right movements in Europe, such as those of members of the Freedom Party in Austria, Vox in Spain and the Northern League in Italy, as well as the alt-right in the United States. She contested the 2017 election after a right-wing populist wave the previous year in which Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, the British public voted to leave the European Union and Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines.

The European far right has had the most success in Hungary and Poland. Viktor Orban, leader of the Fidesz party and supporter of what he calls “illiberal democracy”, has been in power in Hungary since 2010. Law and Justice (PiS), a conservative populist party, has been in power in Poland since 2015. Orban and PiS leaders obstructed state institutions, captured the media, played on immigration fears and promoted conspiracy theories.

Hungary and Poland have retreated from democracy in recent years. Le Pen’s election to the presidency could also put a strain on democratic institutions in France.

In “Twilight of Democracy,” Applebaum warns that “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.” Drawing on research in behavioral economics, she notes an authoritarian predisposition in some, which includes a preference for homogeneity and order, an aversion to complexity, and a (perhaps more universal) desire to belong to some something bigger than oneself (which can potentially be satisfied by being part of a well-defined “movement” or “nation”).

Autocratic leaders who can effectively tap into such a predisposition can sometimes gain power. “The appeal of authoritarianism,” writes Applebaum, “is eternal.” The need to feel part of a higher community is not “only a problem for Poland, Hungary, Venezuela or Greece”, she says. Democratic backsliding can happen, as demonstrated, she says, by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, among others, in “some of the wealthiest and most secure democracies in the world.”

Le Pen will probably end up losing the French presidential election. But she’ll get too close to be comfortable. Its relative success should come as no surprise. It will not be the first time that far-right authoritarian sentiment has flared up. Let it serve as a warning of what lies beneath.

David R. Dreyer is a professor of political science at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Email him at David.Dreyer@lr.edu.

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