Far right en marche

Europe proves again that meeting fascists halfway is a bad strategy

There was bad news last weekend for Americans toying with the idea of escaping to Europe in the event of a Trump victory this fall. Far-right, ethnonationalist, and anti-immigrant parties gained a disturbingly large share of seats in the European Parliament from several key countries. 1 These included Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, and, most ominously, Germany — where the Nazi-adjacent, extremely online Alternative for Germany, or AfD, placed a strong second to the center-right Christian Democrats.

In France, the National Rally Party — a faction whose roots lie in the collaborationist parties of the French Nazi puppet state in World War II — won outright, more than doubling the share of the vote of the centrist faction of President Emmanuel Macron. This embarrassing turn of events drove Macron to call for snap legislative elections later this month. Those elections won’t decide the presidency; nonetheless, they appear to be a game of chicken between Macron and the National Rally’s leader, the Putin-funded, “Euroskeptic” Islamophobe Marine Le Pen, who inherited the party from her even more racist, Nazi-collaborator-aligned father. And it’s a game of chicken that, in the short term at least, he seems likely to lose.

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The news wasn’t all terrible. While the Fratelli d’Italia, the ruling neo-fascist party whose roots go directly back to Benito Mussolini, did win its country’s vote, it did so by a smaller margin than any previous Italian governing party in a European election. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — an authoritarian antisemite whose political allies include Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and most of the current Republican Party — is widely reckoned to be the big loser of the day, losing a significant amount of its previous European Parliament vote share to Orbán’s ex-comrade turned rival, Péter Magyar (whose name, I can’t resist pointing out, literally translates to Pete the Hungarian).

Most importantly, despite the far right’s foreboding gains, they didn’t come close to winning enough seats to form part of a majority on their own. Overall, the centrist mega-parties, in particular the conservatives, won the most seats, and will likely form a majority, assuming the center-right and center-left agree to work together.

The problem is that many of those same centrists — even many of the left-leaning ones — took it upon themselves to ape their respective countries’ far-right’s policy preferences, if not their vitriol, making their new brands feel less like an extension of the old postwar Coca-Colonization and more like Fanta Lite.

Marine Le Pen in Paris on June 10, 2024, a day after the European Parliament elections. (Photo by Adnan Farzat/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the French election, for instance, Macron signed a restrictive new immigration law which included accelerated deportation procedures and mandated new limits and French-language requirements on residency permits. Though the bill’s most extreme measures — including immigration quotas and the denial of certain social benefits to recent immigrants and non-citizens — were thrown out by a constitutional court, French media nonetheless called the bill a “gift to the far right.” They also suggested it would be an opening to the National Rally in future elections, citing a famous quote from its now 96-year-old Holocaust-denying founder Jean-Marie Le Pen: “Voters always prefer the original to the copy.”

And they did. Marine Le Pen’s weekend triomphe, and polls showing that the National Rally is poised to triple its current seats in the French legislature later this month, set off a race in Paris to see who’d lick the jackboots the fastest. The winner was Éric Ciotti, the leader of the Gaullist conservative party Les Républicains, who called for an alliance with Le Pen — only to be kicked out of his office hours later by his own disgusted lieutenants. Ciotti responded angrily on X that he remains the party’s president. Whatever happens there, Ciotti almost certainly will not be the last. The question is not whether there will be a Franz Von Pappen in France — if not Europe in general — but who it will be, and how much power their latter-day Hitler can weasel their way into as a result.

This should all sound dispiritingly familiar to American voters. As in Europe, both immigration attempts and asylum applications are up in the United States, as millions of people flee the ravages of climate change, conflict, poverty, and imperial resource extraction. This immigration is fueling nationalist panic and social stress — panic that centrist elites feel at pains to take seriously, even though the particulars are patently bullshit. (To wit: Immigrants to the U.S. commit less crime than American-born citizens; they pay billions of dollars in taxes — even if they’re undocumented; they help create more jobs than they “take,” etc.)

Our centrist President Biden, à la Macron, openly worked with Republicans to craft a new immigration policy — going so far as to fruitlessly beg Trump to help him pass it — only to be inevitably condemned by our far right when his draconian new policies weren’t draconian enough. This should be obvious to everyone involved: when the only yardstick of success is how much you’ve quieted millions of people’s contradictory anxieties about an insanely broad social issue like immigration, you’ll inevitably end up having to focus on the loudest and most vitriolic people’s fears, and there’s no limit to how brutal you’ll have to get.

Which is why, no matter what language or national context these policies are in, the only signal voters get from seeing centrists take far-right wacko concerns seriously is that immigration must indeed be some kind of national security threat, and one that — as Le Pen’s father foresaw — is best left to your local neo-fascist.

The one small solace in Europe is that, given the limited amount of power the legislature has at the EU level, any success the far-right parties will have at a continental level depends on their ability to work together. And fascists are notoriously bad at international cooperation. (After all, the one thing they tend to have in common is a bottomless hatred of foreigners.) So, for instance, the German AfD demands tough fiscal constraints on poorer countries, and vociferously oppose raising common debt to fund priorities like public health or the harms caused by climate change. But the Italian Fratelli want the opposite: to keep the fiscal rules on smaller economies like theirs as loose as possible, and to take maximum advantage of pooled resources like common debt. Awkward!

Unfortunately, the far-right parties seem to share a more uniform opposition to climate policy, especially the European Green Deal — a suite of tax, energy, and other policies meant to pave the way to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. (Le Pen promised to take down all of France’s wind turbines ahead of the 2022 election, showing that irrational hatred of spinning fans isn’t just a thing at Mar-a-Lago.) They do so in the name of short-term gains — a way to demonstrate their opposition to the rising cost of living — at the cost of their respective peoples’ futures.

If they are successful, of course, they will worsen climate change, thus making even worse refugee crises inevitable — and perhaps further entrenching them in power. How far the centrist parties here and there are willing to follow the reactionaries down the climate rabbit hole, as they already have on immigration, could be one of the most consequential questions in the period to come.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'Never again! No platform for AfD' during a protest against the electoral campaign meeting of the far-right AfD party ahead of the European Parliament election in Marl, Germany, on May 25, 2024. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

1  For the uninitiated on this side of the pond, the European Parliament is kind of a cross between the Continental Congress of the 1770s as envisioned under the weak, decentralized Articles of Confederation and the Galactic Senate from the Star Wars prequels. It has some power over the EU budget and approves members of the executive European Commission. Popularly, it exists mostly as a place for citizens of various European states to periodically vent their feelings about the continental alliance, and a forum for the more telegenic of its vast constellation of members (there will be 720 this term) to rant about the outrages of the day in accents that are funny to everyone outside a fifteen-kilometer radius of their hometowns, in videos that get posted to social media.

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