Posted on March 14, 2012

The New Extreme Right: a Messenger of the Future?

Xavier Casals, Re-Public, March 9, 2012

Almost 40 years have passed since the first parties of the European new extreme right (Framstegspartiet, [FrP] in Norway and Fremskridtspartiet in Denmark) entered parliament in 1973. During this period, other similar parties have achieved institutional representation in most countries of Western European. This new right-wing extremism which operates within the democratic framework has generated a wide academic debate, while diverse terminologies have been used in order to name it: “extremist center”, “post-industrial extreme right”, “national populism” or “new right-wing populism”.

In any case, these parties have a clear common denominator: they are forming an anti-globalization movement from the standpoint of the political right. They articulate their message around two principal axes: the defense of “national identity” and the protest against the elites. Their leaders, as the political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff points out, address the “people” in a double sense: as “demos” (the bearers of national sovereignty against the political oligarchies who mediate and hijack this sovereignty) and as “ethnos” (a homogeneous community without internal divisions). In this way, their anti-elitist discourse is based on two oppositions: on the one hand, the “small” against the “big”, or the “bottom-up against the top-down”; and, on the other hand, “the ‘authentic people’, embodying national identity [ . . . ] against the ‘cosmopolitans’, the ‘foreign party’”. [1]

This populist right claims to have become the advocate of the “common person in the street” against the “corrupted” elites and the threats posed by globalization, whether these are economic (migration flows, industrial relocations), political (loss of state sovereignty to supranational organizations) or cultural (multiculturalism). Also, since the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York, this discourse has given increasing relevance to the rejection of Islamism.

The consolidation of the extreme right raises two complex questions: Is its message at odds with democratic values? Is it possible to contain its electoral advancement?

A difficult marriage: democracy and exclusion

Regarding the first question, the most striking feature of the extreme right is that it has partly incorporated the legacy of the Enlightenment.[2] This change is reflected in three areas:

First, the new populist right rejects racism in its official discourse and adopts the “praise of difference”. Its parties affirm the necessity to preserve cultural diversity as a kind of wealth and they also argue that immigrant ethnic communities should avoid miscegenation in order to be able in the near future to return to their (home) countries, where they will be supposedly better off.

Second, the new populist right rejects totalitarianism and exalts plebiscitary democracy. In this sense, its parties seem to champion a “nationalist ochlocracy”. Its leaders denounce the fact that parliaments and traditional political parties undermine and hijack the popular will. At the same time, they encourage a permanent electoral mobilization and referendums as the most direct expressions of national sovereignty.

Third, the rejection of Islam by the new populist right has driven its parties towards a liberal turn, incorporating issues like the defense of women’s rights.[3] Significantly, more women now figure at the forefront of these parties (Siv Jensen, Marine Le Pen, Pia Kjærsgaard), while the assassinated Pim Fortuyn was a homosexual.

In summary, the new populist right has moved away from racism and totalitarianism and has made the plebiscitary democracy as its sign of identity. This has created a paradox: if in the 19th and 20th centuries the establishment of universal suffrage was connected to the extension of liberties and the idea of social progress, today this can carry a reactionary character by legitimizing policies of exclusion. An example of this process was the referendum which was promoted by the Swiss People’s Party [Schweizerische Volkspartei — SVP/UDC] in March 2000 in Emmen. In this referendum, the citizens of Emmen were asked on whether they accept the citizenship applications of people requesting naturalisation and voted for the rejection of the applications made by families coming from former Yugoslavia.

Is it possible to curb/turn back the rise of the new populist right?

In the 1980s the rise of the National Front in France led to the implementation of different strategies for curbing the rise of the new extreme right, which were later adopted in other countries and that Taguieff systematized conceptually.[4] I will analyze their respective political costs and benefits below.

Outlaw the extreme right. This measure is counter-productive for several reasons: it puts these parties at the center of an ideological and media intensive polemic; it frames a moral rather than a political debate which impedes the tackling of important issues (civil insecurity, political corruption, patriotism) and that mobilizes extreme right voters. Thus, when in 2004 the Flemish Block [Vlaams Blok — VB] was banned and it continued its activity under a new name –Vlaams Belang– it managed to increase its popularity.[5]

Create media silence over the extreme right. This option removes its parties from the center of the debate, but it allows them to advocate their discourse without opposition. At the same time, its leaders can present themselves as victims of an establishment that wishes to silence them. In addition, public opinion lacks key information in order to comprehend the eventual rise of these parties.

Effect a calculated “imitation” of extreme right discourse by traditional parties: This option may reduce the attractiveness of the extreme right in the short term, but by taking on their agenda the conservative right may give it legitimacy and can contribute to its “normalization”.

Integrate the populist right into government. When the populist parties are integrated into government they lose their character of protest and tend to manifest internal tensions and contradictions. Examples include the internal splits suffered by the Lega Nord [LN] in 1994 and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs [FPÖ] in 2005 after participating in governments of their respective countries, as well as the rapid fall of Pim Fortuyn Lijst as soon as it became part of the Dutch government in 2002.

This strategy, however, doesn’t always work, since the right-wing populist parties have adopted tactics in order to simultaneously project an image of both a ruling and an oppositional force. For instance, the Lega Nord, during the second mandate of Berlusconi, has simultaneously operated as a regular party in government supporting Berlusconi, while it acted as an opposition party criticizing the other members of the government coalition, such as the Alleanza Nazionale and the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centri.[6] In a similar fashion, the SVP/UDC in Switzerland adopts the role of a protest party which promotes plebiscites against the policies of the federal government, while it currently forms the largest party in the federal parliament and is, therefore, co-responsible for its decisions.[7] Populist parties can thus participate in government coalitions without suffering a significant setback if they manage to maintain their character of protest. Finally, this strategy has another effect: the participation of the extreme right in government brings about a shift of the political scene towards the right, while, at the same time, it popularizes its political agenda.[8]

Establish “sanitary cordons” or multi party alliances in order to prevent access of these parties to government. These alliances isolate the extreme right from government operations. In return, they allow its leaders to adopt a discourse of victimization and denounce all the rest of the political parties as “equal”. More so, these measures might push the issue of the differences between the right and the left to the background of the political system.

In short, there are no containment strategies without high costs for the rivals of the populist right and the latter usually benefits from all these in a lesser or greater degree. In this situation, as Taguieff already pointed out in 1995, we should opt for interventions of public forces which tackle the social causes that re-enforce the rise of the populist right (unemployment, job insecurity, civil insecurity, degradation of suburbs), despite the current economic crisis. And above all, we should opt for an “intellectual struggle” that highlights the contradictions and deceits of right-wing populist discourse.[9] The latter option may have a limited impact, but it recuperates the pedagogical function of politics, something essential in a time of reinvention of democratic systems.

The populist tide grows

In 2000, Paul Hainsworth was editor of a collective work on the new populist right titledFrom the Margins to the Mainstream.[10] A decade later, this statement seems to have come true. As Piero Ignazi notes, our political era is “characterized by the progressive diffusion of the agenda of the extreme right in the public sphere”, especially within the moderate and conservative political parties. [11]

In fact, populism tends to spread throughout the political spectrum. In this sense, even if the “indignants” movement may be the embryo of a “new left”, it also carries a plebiscitary and an anti-elitist populism. Guided by this expansion of populism, perhaps we should consider the new extreme right as the initial symptom of a populist drift in the European politics of the global era.


[1] P.-A. Taguieff, “Populismes et antipopulismes: le choc des argumentations”, Mots, 55 (June 1998), pp. 5-6.

[2] Y. Mény, Y. Surel, Par le peuple, pour le peuple. Le populisme et les démocraties (Fayard, La Flèche, 2000), p. 305.

[3] J. P. Zúquete, “The European extreme-right and Islam: New directions?”, Journal of Political Ideologies (October 2008), 13 (3), 321-3:4.

[4] Following the suggestion of P.-A. Taguieff, “Antilepénisme: les erreurs à ne plus commettre”, in D. Martin-Castelarnau (ed.), Combattre le Front National (Editions Vinci, París, 1995), pp. 213-230.

[5] L. de Wienter, “The Vlaams Blok: the Electorally best Performing Right-extremist Party in Western Europe”, en X. Casals (ed.), Political survival on the Extreme Right (ICPS, Barcelona, 2005), p. 118.

[6] D. Albertazzi, D. McDonnell, “La botte piena e il militante ubriaco. La Lega Nord al governo”,Trasgressioni, 46 (January-April 2008), pp. 25-43.

[7] D. Skenderovic, “Los partidos populistas de extrema derecha en Suiza: de la marginalidad a la corriente principal”, in M. Á. Simón (ed.), La extrema derecha en Europa desde 1945 hasta nuestros días (Tecnos, Madrid, 2007), p. 462.

[8] W. T. Bau, Populisme de droite en Europe: Phénomène passager ou transition vers un courant polítique dominant? (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-Bureau de Paris, abril 2011), p. 14.

[9] P.-A. Taguieff, “Antilepénisme: les erreurs à ne plus commettre”, op. Cit., pp. 223-230.

[10] P. Hainsworth (ed), The politics of the Extreme Right. From the margins to the Mainstream(Pinter, london-New-York, 2000).

[11] P. Ignazi, “Les partis d’extrême droite en l’Europe de l’Ouest”, en VV.AA., Les extrêmes droites en Europe: Le retour? Actes du colloque du 5 novembre 2010 (Les Cahiers du CEVIPOF Avril 2011 n° 53), pp. 59-67.