European far right’s immigration bogey

30 July 2023
Alan Gomez

When riots erupted last month across France in response to the slaying of a French teenager by a police officer, Europe’s far right wasted no time capitalising on the unrest.

Nicola Molteni from the far-right Lega Nord in Italy called the French events “a certification of a failure, that of uncontrolled immigration, but also a warning for Europe”. Poland’s prime minister, from the far-right Law and Justice Party, painted a picture of chaos—“Shops looted, police cars set on fire, barricades in the streets”—before reaffirming his support for “the principle of voluntary admission of immigrants” and stopping irregular migration.

French youth, particularly those of Middle Eastern and North African descent, rose in June against the racist shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by a police officer in the working-class neighbourhood of Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris. These were the largest protests against racism and police violence in France since 2005, and they extended well beyond the suburbs of Paris, engulfing cities and towns across the country and even prompting protests in Belgium and Switzerland. The far right seized the opportunity to link supposed anxiety about the uprising to fears about immigration and national identity.

“There is a Europe threatened by mobs of anti-Europeans who destroy police stations, burn libraries and stab to steal a cell phone, who are not willing to adapt to our way of life and our laws and who think that we are the ones who have to adapt”, said Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s far-right Vox party. While not identifying the race or religion of the protesters, its clear from Abascal and other far-right European leaders’ responses who their rhetoric was targeting: the Arab-Muslim illegal immigrant bogeyman of Europe, decades in the making.

In Spain’s recent snap elections, Abascal led one of the most racist campaigns the country has seen. Vox manipulated data to claim that half or more crimes in Spain—including violent robberies and sexual assaults—were carried out by foreigners. They resurrected a 2021 campaign poster featuring the false claim that an unaccompanied minor receives €4,700 a month in government support while “your grandmother” only receives €420 a month in pension. While other social and cultural questions—such as attacks on LGBTIQ+ and women’s rights, anti-“wokeism” and so on—have become increasingly prominent, immigration continues to animate the far right.

The dominance and persistence of immigration and national identity in European politics is on display as a conservative wave sweeps the continent and the far right makes serious gains. In Sweden, Finland and Italy, far-right parties either support governing coalitions or, in the case of Italy, lead the government. Elsewhere, far-right parties have come out of the shadows and into the mainstream, outpolling establishment parties to become the third, the second or even the most popular parties nationally.

The German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) recently won a district election for the first time. Its victory in the town of Sonneberg, on top of national polling of 19–20 percent, has given the far-right party the confidence to nominate a candidate for chancellor in 2025. AfD has overturned a national taboo—held since the end of the Second World War—of supporting far-right parties, in a country where the experience of the Holocaust and fascist atrocities are still in living memory.

When French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen entered the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, the shock of a fascist candidate coming so close to the presidency prompted a wave of mass demonstrations across the country, leading to his centre-right opponent’s victory with more than 80 percent of the final vote.

When his daughter Marine Le Pen entered the second round in last year’s presidential elections, she only narrowly lost, winning 13.2 million votes (41 percent of the total cast)—the French far right’s highest tally to date. Known for her incendiary statements against Muslims and immigrants, she toned down her own rhetoric while relying on forces further to her right—such as the anti-Muslim candidate Éric Zemmour—to inflame the electorate.

Europe’s “centrist” political parties must be held accountable for opening the door to the far right through their rightward drift on immigration. They have adopted increasingly reactionary positions on immigration, emboldening and normalising the far right, which in turn has put more pressure on mainstream parties to adopt even more far-right positions.

The administration of French president Emmanuel Macron is illustrative of this phenomenon. When Macron first ran for president in 2017, he avoided any anti-Muslim rhetoric and even denounced France’s colonial past as a “crime against humanity”. Over his two terms, under electoral pressure from a far right growing in popularity, his government has run viciously Islamophobic campaigns, including making repressive state-of-emergency laws permanent in the form of anti-terror legislation, forcing France’s Muslim organisations to adopt a so-called “charter of principles”, and dissolving anti-racist organisations like the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.

Further, the media have worked hard to mainstream right-wing ideas around immigration. For example, the Swedish media have increasingly accommodated the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD). Whereas once SD talking points on immigration would have been identified as racist, since 2015 the Swedish media have tended to present the party’s anti-immigrant views as simply part of general social attitudes.

The European political landscape looks bleak, but there are always bright spots. While the far right in France has been the main political beneficiary of the recent unrest, far-left groups such as La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) have stood against state racism and violence—an important step in rebuilding trust with oppressed communities that have been betrayed and abandoned in preceding decades. In Spain, where Vox was predicted to enter government after the recent election, the party and the centre right went backwards, a sharp rebuke of their blatantly racist and right-wing campaign.

The necessity of building a left that stands in solidarity with oppressed ethnic minorities and migrants, and against racism and fascism, becomes ever more urgent in resisting far-right normalisation.

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