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From Oslo to Milan, the rise of the new radical right

Thursday, 15 September, 2011 - 17:43

Anders Breivik Behring, the person accountable for the twin attacks of Oslo, was a member of the Progress Party (PRF) from 1999 to 2006. The party belongs to the new European radical right: uninhibited, breaking away from the symbols, rituals and language of the traditional extreme right, it attracts more and more younger crowd. Are these parties any less dangerous? Let’s have a panoramic view of the new populism throughout Europe.

“Anders Breivik Behring has been a member of our party”, Siv Jensen, the president of the Progress Party (Fremskrittpartiet, FrP) immediately admitted. She added:

It saddens me even more to learn that this person was one of us. 

Described by the police as a "Christian fundamentalist", Anders Breivik Behring, the perpetrator of the Oslo bombing and the killings on the island of Utoya, had joined the Progress Party in 1999. Since then, the FrP has evolved from the hardest extreme right to the more respectable populism. It raised to the point of winning a quarter of parliamentary seats in recent elections. A trajectory that may explain the departure of Anders Behring in 2006.

A nearly pathological Islamophobia

In the documents he wrote, Anders Breivik confessed his admiration for Geert Wilders, the populist anti-immigrant Dutch leader, and mentioned supporting the "Vienna school of thought" opposed to the expansion of Islam, which refers to the ruling of the Ottoman conquest in Vienna in 1683.

Geert Wilders may state that he "despises everything [Breivik] does and symbolizes"; furthermore the radical right parties – and first of all the French National Front – may condemn and distance themselves from Breivik, nonetheless theirs peeches and ideologies are exactly the same : nationalism, rejection of immigration and, above all, Islam. The Progress Party now belongs to the new radical right in Europe. A new uninhibited right, breaking away from the symbols, rituals and language of the traditional extreme right.

This party proposes programs combining cult of personality, liberal economic theories, family values, liberties and minority rights, rejection of the European Union… all intermingled with an nearly pathological Islamophobia. And finally, a frightening common feature : it attracts more and more younger generation to the scene. This new European political network virtually escapes any attempt of classification. Reluctant to traditional labels, it proposes the disoriented voter simple solutions to complex problems in a blurred and globalised world.

Mask of respectability

Departing from the Nazi and fascist legacy, these parties put on a make up of respectability even though they pretend to be part of the people and at odds with the "corrupt elites." Beyond the local particularities and the necessary adjustments to national – and in some cases, regional – cultures, the similarities between these parties are so numerous that we clearly states that they all belong to a new European populism.

The experts, however, disagree on the list of these parties. They are: the Northern League in Italy, the Danish People's Party in Denmark, the Popular Party in Belgium, the Netherlands’ PVV, the Center Democratic Union in Switzerland and finally, since the presidency of Marine Le Pen, the French National Front, which is strongly mutating.

Breaking away from the fascist legacy

Totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, such as fascism and Nazism were born on the "battlefields" of the First World War. They are the result of social, economic and territorial frustrations that Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany and Ante Pavelic in Croatia, used as puppets on the string.

These parties had many things in common including rejection of parliamentary government, cult of personality and strength, extreme nationalism – which resulted in an aggressive policy of territorial annexation and the most virulent anti-Semitism. After the war and the defeat of these totalitarian regimes, the Nazi and fascist movements started celebrating – openly or underground – the memory of the defeated leaders and prepared for the advent of a new national revolution…

Parties which will be discussed here were born after the war and – with one exception, the National Front – have never promoted anti-Semitism and have consistently rejected the fascist and the Nazi legacy.

Lost children of the left

There is also a “generation gap”, since the politicians who were there since the end of the war are retiring and being replaced by a new generation who did not experience the divisions and struggles which shaped the after-war political thought. Most of these parties originated by splitting with the traditional liberal parties. That is the the case of the PVV in the Netherlands, which is born out of a conflict between its leader, Geert Wilders and the VVD liberal party of which he was a deputy.

Some of these leaders were once active in left parties that they disavowed like Umberto Bossi of the Northern League who was once a communist or Mishael Modrikamen, leader of the Belgian Popular Party and the son of a socialist leader.

Strategic repositioning of the FN

The French National Front is of another example. Some authors refuse to acknowledge that the changes within the party since Marine Le Pen took the presidency are not merely a cosmetic discourse to attract more voters.

This is probably yet another "generational" phenomenon . Not just adding more camouflage cosmetic adaptation, one with sound mind can clearly see that a strategic repositioning in the constellation populist is fundamentally changing the party's ideology. The traditional slogans of the Daddy’s FN like anti-Semitism – the extermination of millions of Jews as a mere "detail of history" – fundamentalist Catholicism or Petainism are now simply left to rot.

It is not just a way to get rid of the last followers of Bruno Gollnish – the unfortunate opponent that ran against Marine Le Pen in the elections for the presidency of the party – but a grass root strategic movement to ride the populist wave that works well elsewhere.

Nevertheless, other far-right movements acknowledge this big U-turn and are now trying to assemble against the "treacherous" Marine and form a common electoral platform.

The rejection of the "corrupt elites"

It is difficult to give an unambiguous definition of populism, as its varieties, over time and random sites, were numerous. However, we can try to give some permanent common features with regards to its definition.
Firstly, the rejection of the "corrupt elites." Ruling governments, the intellectual elites and the “leftwing church” (Geert Wilders) confiscated the power for their own benefit. The populist emerged from the people and will give him back the power. They, therefore, advocate forms of direct democracy, as the referendum – which we all know how well politics can easily manipulate it.

Thus, Le Pen denounces the "UMPS", combining the initials of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP and Socialist Party “PS”, accusing both parties to savor away the benefits of power. As for Wilders, he does not lose an opportunity to recall how he is different from the "gang of the Hague", and Umberto Bossi, the "Tribune" of the Northern League has no words strong enough to the "well-offs of Rome". Mishael Modrikamen, leader of the Popular Party of Belgium, always boosts that he advocated the slight investors against the "ogre Fortis' [the bank rescued from bankruptcy and bought by BNP Paribas in 2009] .

The rejection of the European Union and of its elites are also favoured slogans. They allow both to distance themselves from these elites and put national sovereignty at the center of debate. The enemy is not the neighboring country, as the nationalists of the past claimed, but an abstract and bureaucratic institution robbing the poor national taxpayer who is no longer his own master.

Of course, only the populist, originated from the people, can give power back to the people. They come to a full circle !

Are these opposition parties only?

All this makes these parties very effective opposition parties, but one may question their ability to rule the country when they come into power. Some of them have solved the almost impossible equation to remain an opposition party while participating in power: it is the case of the Danish People's Party, which stands since 2001 as a firm support to the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party.

The PVV is using the same solution in the Netherlands, supporting the Liberal and Catholic Mark Rutte government as a “shadow cabinet”. The Northern League is participating in the coalition led by Berlusconi in a more classic way. But the result is the same throughout Europe: the parties, whether in power or in opposition, are weighing and imposing their own agenda on the ruling governments. This also legitimizes the slogans of these parties : racism, Islamophobia, nationalist fallback become acceptable values.

Personality cult

What would the FN be without Le Pen? The PVV without Wilders ? The Lega Nord without Umberto Bossi? The Danish People's Party without Pia Kjaesgaard? The Popular Party without Mishael Modrikamen?
Asking these questions is not without consequences. The French National Front, the party founded by François Duprat and others seem to be confused with the heritage of Le Pen’s family. The charismatic younger daughter succeeded the old charismatic leader, who was once the youngest member of France Parliament.

The PVV is the party of one man and this triggers some problems. Shortly before the elections of June 2010, one of the most prominent candidates of the party, Hero Brinkman, former head of the Amsterdam police and totaling a huge number of potential voters threatened to dissent. "The PVV is the party of one man," he claimed in the media.

Wilders could not exclude him. Not a candidate of this calibre just before a crucial election. So he procrastinated. But he did not change anything. The PVV is still in the hands of Wilders who is really scared of the dissensions which destroyed Pim Fortuyn’s LPF party. In September 2010, Brinkman and his followers were forced to create an outside think tank in order to talk about the democratisation of the PVV…

These parties are indeed hyper-dependent on the image projected by their leader. Wilders has been shell-shocked by the collapse of the Lijst Pim Fortuyn after the assassination of its flamboyant leader. When Umberto Bossi, the "Senatur" of the Northern League, got a stroke on March 11 2004, the party was not sure at all if it would outlive him. Although the old politician is a shadow of his own former self, his energy and his roughness ensure the continuity of its movement. But what will happen after his death or retirement ?

Muslim immigration: absolute evil and universal explanation

Whether in the fantastical Padania of the Northern League ; in Geert Wilders’ Dutch Limburg, in Marine Le Pen’s popular France, in Pia Kjaesgaard’s rural Denmark, in the UDC blessed Switzerland or in the Brabant plains of Belgian PP, the absolute enemy, one that comes with the scandal, the source of all evil, is immigration. And especially, Muslim immigration.

The Nazis Anti-Semitism has given way to an Islamophobia which Muslim is as fantastical as the Jew of the Protocols of Zion, the so-called document actually forged by the secret services of the Tsar to stir up hatred against a community which was viewed as too powerful.

In its program, the Lega Nord underlines the "Christian roots and humanist inheritance of Europe". "Immigration, Justice, security and public order" are included in the same section of the site which says a lot about what the League really thinks about immigration !

According to Geert Wilders, it is "five to midnight" for Western civilization. For Marine Le Pen, Islam threatens secularism. The Swiss People's Party has based its success on Islamophobic campaigns including the latest, the "vote against minarets" which hit the headlines and divided the country.

Mishaël Modrikamen, also the president of the Jewish community in Belgium is – like Wilders – an ardent supporter of Israel and did not hesitate to compare the boycott of products from the occupied Palestinian territories to the boycott of the Jewish products by the Nazis in 1938. Another common feature with Geert Wilders who often compares Islam to fascism and the Koran to Mein Kampf, an idea that comes from the Danish People's Party. It seems that the European contagion also plays full in this field.

Without exception, all these parties shape their own identity based upon an idea of Islam as absolute evil. But it is a caricatured Islam, which has no reality whatsoever. Each attack, each local news involving a young Turkish and Moroccan is completely blown upon – with a soft attitude of mainstream media, you have to admit it…

Traditional values of the left

Another feature that makes it difficult to classify these populist parties according to traditional patterns of political analysis is that they often are the result of an original synthesis of elements from : more or less Liberal economic principles ; family values and a tougher justice for criminals belonging to a more Conservative right; and defense of gays and lesbians, also traditionally left-wing values.

They can promote an exaggerated individualism and a weakened state like the Progress Party of Norway and, to a large extent, the Dutch PVV. But they can also focus on small businesses such as the leaders of the Northern League, who know the economic structures of Northern Italy very well … and their voters !

Concern for respectability

Another common feature of these parties is their constant desire to show a respectable face. No way to be confused with skinheads or neo-Nazis: Marine Le Pen has excluded Alexandre Gabriac National Front, against the advice of her father, because the young frontist was photographed posed as stretching out his arm like the Nazis.

Geert Wilders has recently suspended Sam van Rooy, a young associate member who had published a clip on veiled women and then calling them "scum". The leaders of these parties are surrounded by "spin doctors" who teach them how to proportion their discourse. Not always easy to find the balance between their provocative stands – like France "occupied" by the Friday prayers in the streets – and smoothed acceptable political discourse in the media at "prime time".

The radical right seduces the young generation

Yet, the most disturbing feature of these parties is probably their seductive power with respect to youth. The tough but "correct" talk, stripped of its most extreme rags, the values of individualism and the rejection of the elites, the use of direct democracy and the breaking off with bureaucracy – be it European or national – the freedom of expression : all these topics attract the sympathy of the younger generation.
As a whole, Populist leaders are relatively younger than the traditional party leaders, a phenomenon which helps younger generations to easily identify themselves with them.

Their speech is also more flamboyant, more colourful and appealing rather than the theoretical rationalisations of most traditional parties. They offer simple solutions to complex problems contemporary societies are currently facing. This is probably another explanation of their huge success. They appear as parties of action contrasting with the so-called verbose inaction of mainstream politicians. In Scandinavian countries, the recent emergence of "mass" immigration has been destabilising the youth: they do not want to sit next to immigrants in school or provide them the "best jobs". These fears, the desire to pay less tax and to be his own master made the success of the Norwegian Progress Party, which is the first among the youth.

A similar phenomenon exists in the Netherlands, in which the weakening of the social model combined with the seemingly uncontroled immigration throughout the big cities – more than half of the inhabitants of Rotterdam are of immigrant descent – contribute to generalise anxiety and rejection of others.

Blogs, Twitter and viral ads

When Geert Wilders has called for candidates for the Parliament elections of 2008, the students were the social category which responded most heavily. Were they sensitive to the pastoral charm of the video showing Geert Wilders in a rowboat, with Fleur Agema, "rowing against the tide" on a lake between the windmills and the fields ?

The communication channels – blogs, twitter, viral advertising – applied by these parties are the ones the youth are also using, even when they show a somewhat backward and idealised image of the Netherlands: the Golden Age of a country that has never existed but in the old-fashioned imagination of the populist leader. Marine Le Pen is also making a remarkable breakthrough with the youth – “between 20% to 23% of the votes are among 18-24 year olds,” if we rely on the result produced by an lpsos survey mentioned in the press release from the National Youth Front. There is no doubt that in France, too, the fear of the other and the anguish of an uncertain future play a major role in this kind of vote.

Free speech and actions

In The Leviathan or the Golem, populism, elites and abyss, essay published in 2008 as the first Kees Lunshof conference in the new international press centre Nieuws Poort, Arthur Docters van Leeuwen said:

history teaches us that populism in itself is not dangerous, but (is) almost invincible when he joins the gang so as Mussolini did with the Fascio di Combattimento [Italian League of Combatants, political movement that turned into Italian Fascist Party].

Regrettably, populism can be threatening and harmful very rapidly by releasing poisonous speeches and dangerous acts of people, as the double attack of Oslo clearly shown. It is not necessary that populism will arm itself or arms the hand of another: it just has to legitimate actions in advance by designating a fantastical enemy…


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