Far-Right: The Crisis Itself or the Result?

The vote count in the European Parliament elections is complete. The losers are the liberals, greens, social democrats, and the left. The conservatives, right-wing populists, and far-right emerged victorious. Now, the balance of power has shifted to the right. In France, the overwhelming victory of the Rassemblement National, a strengthening AfD in Germany despite its flirtation with Nazism, a clear right-wing nationalist majority in Italy and Hungary… Undoubtedly, the intensity of the far-right and right-wing populism varies in each country, but pro-Europeans are in shock. Was this change unexpected? According to Professor Mabel Berezin, Director of the Institute for European Studies at Cornell University, what is happening is unsurprising.

As an experienced sociologist at the same university since 2002, she served as the sociology department chair from 2010 to 2014. Her work explores the intersection of political institutions and cultural meanings, and she has closely followed the far right in France and Italy on the ground. Le Parisien Matin spoke with Professor Berezin, author of “Making the Fascist Self” and “Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times,” after the elections. Is the far-right the crisis itself or the result of it? Is the rising right limited to the old continent, or is it universal? Is Macron’s decision to call for an election after his defeat brilliant or mistaken? Why are young voters turning to the far-right? What are the European left and centre failing at? Moreover, is it possible for the far-right to normalize in absolute power? Berezin answers all these questions.

The Challenge of Far-Right Rise vs. Centre’s Response

Should Europe be more afraid of a shift to the far right or a tired and arrogant response from the centre? Also, do far-right parties point out the correct problems even if they do not have the right solutions?

Well, it’s interesting that you mentioned this. A French prime minister in the 1990s was talking about Jean Marie Le Pen and said the problem was he had the right questions with the wrong answers. There’s a lot to fear in Europe today — the combination of an attenuated left and a weakened centre right in some countries. Every country is different. That’s the issue when discussing Europe in general. To different degrees, the far right in some countries is something to worry about. You correctly point out that the capacities for various kinds of coalitions that aren’t extreme right have broken down in some places — for example Germany looks like there are possibilities after this election. However, the AfD’s second place is troubling. In France, it’s hard to imagine what’s going on. It seems chaotic.

Is Macron’s Strategic Move Really Strategic?

Macron’s pivotal move to participate in the upcoming elections rather than wait for the 2027 presidential election has the potential to pave the way for the relatively young Jordan Bardella, aged 28, to assume the role of prime minister. The question arises: Can Bardella effectively handle the internal affairs of the eurozone’s second-largest economy?

That is an excellent question because every commentator I’ve read says Macron has a brilliant strategy here because the RN, Bardella, and Le Pen will not be able to do the job of governing They will fail badly, and then the people will vote for others who can do it. I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s a sure bet that they won’t be able to do it. It’s a risk.

I wouldn’t place my bets if I were Macron on far right being unable to govern. There might be other strategic reasons why this is a good thing to do. Article twelve of the French constitution allows you to do this. And as people like to point out, de Gaulle did it in 1958, and Chirac did it in 1997. But 1958 and 1997 were not 2024. We’re much more precarious than in those times, both in Europe and the United States. One significant difference between 1997 and 1958 and today is that political parties had explicit ideologies and themes. They attracted a consistent group of people who could be relied upon to vote for them. That is no longer the case. This uncertainty has led to formerly fringe parties becoming significant players in national politics. That’s the main difference between the past and present. It’s a risky calculation. I don’t want to downplay the uncertainty of the problem, but it’s hard to see a good outcome. Macron has not been very good at understanding and connecting with the emotions of the French people. He often says the wrong things and seems to misread people’s feelings.

European Context vs. US Political Landscape

Is the current situation in Europe showing a growing trend towards radical alternatives breaking away from the mainstream and the status quo in the West, similar to former and possibly future US President Trump? Are young European voters, particularly those voting for the radical right in Germany, one of the main factors behind the rise of extremism?

Let’s consider what it means to be a young European voter. Take somebody 20 years old or 25. So that means they were born in 1999. What have they experienced? They’ve experienced all kinds of things that aren’t particularly positive. They’ve experienced a downward shift in their life chances. They lack a historical memory of the 1920s and 30’s. It’s history to them. They don’t see it as a risk to democracy. But as you know, there’s a difference in education levels. It’s not just youth. And they’re not carrying the living history in their mind. They’re just looking at their life situation. If it doesn’t look good, why not? They don’t have that whole history or cultural meaning, unlike the national culture, but they don’t have historical memory. This looks like a chance to them. I do not favour comparisons between Europeans and US in this regard. What is happening in the United States today is exceptional, and I feel terrified. There is a document called “Program 2025” from the Heritage Foundation. It’s a 900-page plan for what to do on day one of the Trump administration. It’s a document that describes taking apart every part of the American state as we know it today. The main idea is to replace many lower-level institutional arrangements in the State Department and federal courts with people who support President Trump. These individuals differ from the MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters. They have law degrees and are very determined to pursue their goals. This is quite frightening. They’re much more intelligent than Trump. The other person who has given much advice on this project is Victor Orban. So, there is a connection. The United States, of course, isn’t Hungary. It’s a little bigger than Hungary. And it’s more prominent in the world. America is a well-known place. I’m sitting on the East Coast in New York City. When I teach, and I’m teaching at Cornell, it’s like, and I go, just outside the rim of the university community to the local rural people there, it’s like a different world. They’re all republican voters. There’s a lot of unemployment, drugs, all these things… So, there are so many different United States. You get that in European countries, too, but there are many different United States, and there always have been. There’s a trend to go right in general, but the content, what that looks like, is wildly different than in Europe. I spend a lot of time in Europe, and it’s different. The meaning system that the average European has. Whether they be high or low, there’s a different mindset. The definition of right is different. You know, it reminds me of Tolstoy. What is it? All happy families are the same, and all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways. So that’s what I see.

Challenges of Far-Right Unity

Let’s discuss the efforts of far-right parties to unite. What challenges do these efforts bring? Can the different nationalist approaches within these parties today also hinder them from making cross-border collaborations?

In 2017, they made an effort and even consulted with Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist and senior advisor to the president. I didn’t think it was possible then, and it didn’t go anywhere in 2017. They had some meetings, and there were pictures of Salvini, Wilders, and Le Pen, but it’s probably more possible now. But there are still fractures between them. They’re not even in the same groupings in the European Parliament. I don’t see Meloni in this group anymore. She’s trying to play on a larger scale and a larger stage. As you say, there are so many differences. Le Pen wrote to Meloni and asked if it was time we got together. And, you know, and as I understand it, Meloni still hasn’t answered her.

According to some, does being in power pull the far-right towards the centre, as in the case of Meloni?

Well, it certainly has pulled her towards the centre. The one thing I see with her is she likes her job, and to put it mildly, she won’t give it up. I don’t see Meloni joining forces with the Marine Le Pen. She’s in a perfect position. Why does Meloni need Marine Le Pen? When you’re in a more prominent, better position, you don’t join forces with the person that is in a weaker position. Despite this election Le Pen is currently in a weaker position than Meloni. Yes, the RN is doing very well. There needs to be more motivation. If Le Pen becomes president of France or a PM, then yes. But right now, Meloni hedging all her bets. She’s a pretty smart political operative. The thing about power is once you get it, you want to keep it. That’s just an introductory political science. So, some people go and become authoritarian dictators like Orban but some people jockey around. That alliance isn’t going to happen, or if it happens, it might be on some issues. But it’s going to be difficult. It is not impossible, but it is difficult for them to do.

Far-Right: The Crisis Itself or the Result

What are the reasons for the rise of far-right and right-wing populism in Europe and worldwide? Is it due to economic inequality and globalization, migration and identity crisis, distrust in political elites, the role of the media, or a combination of these factors?

First, not everything can be blamed on the media. You can no longer say, “If I believe in X, then I belong to this party.” The meaning of the left has fragmented. I will only talk about the left for now, but left-wing parties in Europe — if they still exist — used to be deeply rooted in local communities. Who knows whether it was ideology, memories of resistance, or war? But most of these parties and communities are no longer there. They used to present some ideological packages to their voters. You knew what the left offered and what the centre-right offered. All of that is gone. Therefore, this situation is reflected in voting tendencies and the absence of traditional parties. Many countries, like France, have no conventional parties left. Apart from the National Front or RN, a political party before 2017, no one in the 2022 elections had come from the past to compete. I was in Paris in 2012. Jean-Luc Mélenchon started, gathering people in the streets. I didn’t find him charismatic, but it was a familiar party. Macron, on the other hand, was a new party. We have to see that the left is facing difficulties on its own. The dissolution of traditional political institutions is at issue. There is a fundamental economic problem. You need to help people living outside the main cities. Look at the farmers’ strike, for example. There are different issues all over Europe. Not everyone in every country has the same problem, but they all talk about the same thing. Many people talk about identity issues or other concerns, but they talk about immigrants. They worry that they do not share the same culture. This was a big deal for France. Still, I’m not saying that the French love immigrants more than they did 15 years ago. However, economic problems reflect the conditions of many people in all these countries. The dissolution of traditional parties opens space, especially for right-wing people in left-wing parties. So, right-wingers speak like the left used to say in many countries. I’m talking about slogans like “Giving back to the people.” One of the most exciting cases that no one likes to talk about, but in my opinion, is Sweden. When people talk about Sweden — about the far-right — they say, “They were initially a Nazi party.” Which they were initially. But explaining what is happening today requires very different arguments. I have spent a lot of time in Sweden. I have seen that Swedes are generally more nationalist than we think. Because we always think of Sweden as a generous welfare state. This is not just about people who want to protect their culture; it reflects the financial conditions of many people in these countries. Dissolutions began in all these countries a little before 1998. When economics combined with the decline of traditional parties, nationalism significantly impacted Europe. Even cosmopolitans are nationalist in some ways. It is challenging to discuss nationalism in Europe because of many national sentiments. The failure of the economy and the party system is more important than identity issues. If it were just about identity issues, these far-right parties we are talking about today would still be outliers.

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