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Artillery Row

Collapse of the cordon sanitaire

The success of nationalists is shaking European politics

Both in folly and in glory, the national fates of the British and the French are inseparable. Just as our two nations once blundered together into the Somme and into the Suez, Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron have once again drawn our two great nations into alignment, calling poorly-calculated snap elections which have spectacularly failed to deliver the intended result. Plus ca change

The first round of French legislative election results saw Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement National surge to victory, pushing Macron’s centrist alliance into third place and creating a challenging set of second-round conditions for the left-wing New Popular Front. If early results are to be believed, we can expect an unprecedented number of three-way runoffs when voters go back to the polls on July 7th. 

With the threat of a nationalist majority looming, traditional political assumptions are being tested, a fact best demonstrated by the ongoing psychodrama within the centre-right Les Republicains party. Following calls to work with Le Pen, Party President Eric Ciotti was effectively ousted by the party’s senior membership, leading to the creation of two competing Gaullist slates. Figures within Macron’s own centrist coalition have equivocated over the question of whether voters should back the nationalist right or the radical left in the next round of voting. 

Make no mistake; Rassamblement National’s political rebirth is an impressive feat. Founded in 1972 as the Front National by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s early years were marred by controversy; across a fifty-year political career, Le Pen became infamous for a number of provocative comments about migrants, homosexuality, and Jewish politicians. In 2002, he shocked the nation by getting into the second round of that year’s Presidential election; yet, even against the notoriously corrupt Jacques Chirac, he could only muster 18 per cent of the vote. 

Under the leadership of his daughter Marine, the party has cleaned up its image, professionalised, and promoted urbane figures such as Party President Jordan Bardella (aged 28). In 2015, she even expelled her father from the party following controversial remarks about the Holocaust. The cordon sanitaire that once separated RN from the French political establishment has been slowly eroded. Much has been made of the party’s overtures to younger voters, with plenty of excited commentary about France’s “zoomer nationalists”; while the extent of this phenomenon is often exaggerated, the French right has certainly been more successful in this regard than its boomer-baiting British counterpart.

Either way, the success of Rassamblement National isn’t the big story of this election. In fact, the story is much, much bigger: right-wing nationalism is now an unavoidable feature of European political life. Like the social democracy of the 20th century, its tenets permeate the continent’s body politic, influencing movements of both the left and right. Establishment parties are abandoning their refusal to work with nationalist movements, and copying many of their most eye-catching policies. Even where nationalists aren’t winning outright, their ideas, rhetoric, and political style are being adopted by conservatives, liberals, and social democrats alike. 

Early signs of this new European reality are already visible. In the Netherlands, anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders looks set to enter government with three parties of the centre-right and in Sweden, the right-wing Sweden Democrats lend their support to a government that has introduced stricter refugee quotas and taken steps to increase voluntary repatriation. Across the Alps, Giorgia Meloni rules the roost; having successfully rehabilitated her own national conservative party of questionable origins, the Italian President offers a glimpse into how Le Pen might govern, should she win the French presidency in 2027. 

Of course, the European political establishment isn’t just rehabilitating nationalist parties; it’s also rehabilitating nationalist ideas. In Denmark, the country’s ruling Social Democratic Party has curtailed the rise of the populist right with pledges to send back Syrian refugees and enforce integration in new housing developments. Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Austria’s People’s Party have both signalled a rightward shift on migration, despite tense relationships with nationalist parties in their respective countries. 

Our own insurgent populist movement is remarkably amateurish when compared to its continental counterparts

The great irony is that, despite nearly a decade of post-Brexit op-eds about Britain’s “dangerous lurch to the far-right”, we seem to be the only European country insulated from this new reality. As Europe moves towards the political right, Britain is set to elect a centre-left government with an overwhelming majority. Our own insurgent populist movement is remarkably amateurish when compared to its continental counterparts, and our traditional party of the centre-right has failed to grasp just how serious the migration problem really is. As General de Gaulle, history’s greatest Frenchman, once famously said, “[England] has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions. In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.” 

Yet, as the old saying goes, il fait donner du temps au temps; give it time. Though July 4th is unlikely to deliver the kind of nationalist earthquake that has begun to emerge on the other side of the English Channel, there are early signs that our political culture could be headed in a distinctly European direction. Over the course of this general election campaign, both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey have admitted that legal migration is too high, while Reform UK will be taking notes on how to grow from Le Pen et al, if it manages to pick up seats on Thursday. 

And, post-election, it’s easy to imagine the rump of the Conservative Party descending into the same kind of civil war as Ciotti and Les Republicains, torn apart by the question of whether to seek detente with Farage. Contrary to General de Gaulle’s famous words, in a decade’s time we may end up in the same position as our French cousins after all.

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