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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Forces on both left and right battle for Europe’s political soul

A defaced election campaign poster in Paris during the snap elections on Sunday, July 7, 2024. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

By Andrew Higgins

Primed to celebrate victory but left explaining why his party finished third, the leader of France’s hard-right National Rally blamed Sunday’s surprise election result on the “caricature” of his party as extremist. That “disinformation,” he said, handed victory to “formations of the extreme left.”

The speech to glum supporters on election night by Jordan Bardella, leader of the nationalist party formerly known as the National Front, captured a Europe-wide trend: intense political polarization in which each side denounces the other as “extremist.”

Europe is far from what British historian Eric Hobsbawm termed the “age of extremes” in the 20th century, when the continent succumbed to the twin extremist ideologies of fascism and communism. There are no violent street battles in Berlin, Paris or Vienna as there were before and sometimes after World War II between rival camps, or urban terror campaigns like those in the 1970s and ’80s by the would-be left-wing revolutionaries of Germany’s Red Army Faction and France’s Direct Action.

Instead, today’s battles are mostly confined to hurling insults across a widening and increasingly poisonous political divide, though an assassination attempt in May against the prime minister of Slovakia showed that the ghosts of past violence were still lurking.

“Don’t underestimate style. It often gives the true message. Substance in democracy is in the style — in the unwritten rules of behavior,” said Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher who describes himself as a “moderately conservative communist.”

The main divide is no longer defined by ideology. Both ends of the political spectrum have much in common in their economic and foreign policy views, including a distrust of NATO and sympathy for Russia, and in their shared contempt for establishment “elites” they see as masters of a self-serving political center.

The most divisive issue is whether nationalism offers salvation from the shocks of an increasingly interconnected world, such as immigration and economic dislocation, or a threat to liberty and even to democracy. In this political world, there are no longer opponents, only enemies to be reviled as extremist.

Zizek lamented that on both the left and right when he said, “Everyone is calling people they don’t agree with extremist.”

“We are in sad and difficult times and this label is very dangerous,” he went on. “Democracy means being open to difference. It presupposes that we share an understanding of basic values and certain basic manners.”

Whether this polarization amounts to a threat is a matter of debate. Neither the raucous right nor the anti-system strain of the left represented by France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose grouping of parties got the most seats on Sunday, has the support to be a truly disruptive force where institutions are strong. And while the hard right has made more gains in Europe overall, it too has stumbled. But the more political camps dig in, scorning previously accepted norms, the more the center erodes and the more democracy is tested.

Wojciech Przybylski, president of Res Publica Foundation, a research group in Warsaw, Poland, said there had been a coarsening of political discourse and a growing contempt on both ends of the spectrum for mainstream forces.

That, he said, reminded him of Poland between the world wars, when the far left and the far right rallied, sometimes violently, against the central government.

Today, he said, both “are united against globalization and claim to be defending the so-called average man against elites.”

A French historian, Jacques Julliard, has described this as the “dangerous ideology of the common man,” a political philosophy promoted by Guglielmo Giannini, a postwar Italian populist whose motto was “Down with everyone!”

Europe’s nationalist parties, which have soared in popularity over the past decade, have had mixed success in recent years converting their rock-the-boat, anti-elitist message into enduring power.

Law and Justice, a conservative Polish party that traffics in conspiracy theories involving Germany and vows to defend what it sees as traditional Christian values, lost power in an October election. But just a month later in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, a provocateur with a history of antipathy toward immigrants and Islam, won the most votes in a general election.

In June elections for the European Parliament, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party won a record number of votes, outperforming each of the three parties in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition.

Perhaps the most vivid example of Europe’s polarization is Slovakia, where Prime Minister Robert Fico, a shape-shifting populist who started on the left before embracing nationalist messaging, returned to power in September after a thin election victory. In May, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt by a gunman whom officials initially called a “lone wolf” but who was later described by Fico as a “messenger of evil and political hatred” from his left-wing opponents.

The French vote on Sunday was met with relief by Europe’s mainstream politicians, who worried that victory for the National Rally would have bolstered the so far lonely calls by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary for an end to military aid for Ukraine.

Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, responded on social media to the result: “In Paris enthusiasm, in Moscow disappointment, in Kyiv relief. Enough to be happy in Warsaw.”

Votes now are often about bucking the establishment, whatever form that takes.

In Britain, the desire for change last week handed the Labour Party, out of power for 14 years, a thumping election victory against a divided and discredited Conservative Party. But Labour’s victory in Britain was paired with a strong electoral showing by the Reform party of Nigel Farage, a driving force behind Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The French left’s triumph on Sunday was in large measure the result of what Bardella, the National Rally leader, denounced as an “alliance against nature” between Macron and leftists. And no party won a majority, with seats pretty closely split.

Few analysts see the election results in Britain and France as evidence of a resurgence by the left. Shut out of power for years, leftist parties in most countries have ditched past commitments to socialist economic policies like the nationalization of banks and industry, and differ little from the center-right.

“There is clear polarization, but I see no sign the left is rising again,” said Przybylski, the researcher in Warsaw.

The National Rally fell short of expectations, but it and many other hard-right European parties, he added, “do better and better with each election. They are far from running the show but they get more and more votes.”

Europe’s political struggles, mostly bereft of debate about concrete policies and dominated by eye-catching stunts, are in many places viewed as a “joke and a circus,” Zizek, the philosopher, said.

An extreme example of that was the election victory in European Parliament elections last month of a 24-year-old prankster in Cyprus with no political experience or policy proposals. He promoted himself as a “professional mistake maker” and won a seat after a campaign that featured his spending a week in a coffin.

“His point was that politics is a farce,” Zizek said. “But global mistrust of politics is a tragedy, especially when it reaches the young.”

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