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Artillery Row

The day #FBPE delusions died

Europeans have shifted rightwards — and no one should be surprised

For years, the fictional character RS Archer has been posting on Twitter about how parochial and stupid Britain is compared to France, where he purports to live. Brexiteers are ill-tempered and xenophobic while the French are jovial and cosmopolitan.

Maintaining this imaginative universe depends on studied ignorance of violent or illiberal tendencies in France. Archer mocked the idea that there were serious riots in France in 2023, for example (there were). Now that the right-populist National Rally has topped the European elections, Archer has said nothing at all. Limply, he has spent the day making fun of British Brexiteers.

In the minds of Britain’s managerial leftists, Brexit Britain is grim and bigoted while Europe — up to Poland and Hungary at least — is an island of multicultural liberalism. John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better is an upmarket example.

But this — to pay tribute to Adam Curtis — is a fantasy. As Guy Dampier wrote for The Critic last year, the continent has been drifting rightwards. This is even true of younger voters. In his Critic essay “The kids are alt-right”, Sebastian Milbank observed:

In France and Spain, the youth have abandoned centrist parties and now vote for either the far-left, or the far-right — the majority of French under-30s voted either for Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2017.

In Finland, Austria, Romania, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the greatest growth for nationalist and far-right parties has been among younger voters. The pattern isn’t repeated in every country, but it is incredibly widespread. 

This trend has manifested itself vividly in the European elections. The National Rally in France, the AfD in Germany, the FPO in Austria and Vlaams Belang in Belgium all did well on nationalist platforms, and it seems fair to presume that young voters were unusually influential in their success.

To be sure, the elections were by no means a runaway triumph for the right. The Swedish Democrats underperformed in Sweden. Donald Tusk’s liberal coalition triumphed in Poland. In Hungary, Fidesz won but in its worst performance in an EU election in two decades. All unifactorial analyses of European politics — indeed, any politics — are ignorant or disingenuous.

Yet the relative success of nationalist parties has dismayed pro-EU Britons. In the Guardian, Alexander Hurst — who had just earned the right to vote in France — laments:

… the hold that a type of nostalgia politics exerts among people of roughly my generation for a time they never lived in, and that never really existed anyway.

Who says right-wing politics must depend on nostalgia for the past and not just unhappiness with the present? Young people in France have grown up witnessing brutal massacres, deranged executions, infectious rioting and a growing gang problem. I suspect that those of them who have been shifting to the right are less romantic about the past than they are dissatisfied with the modern world — and fearful about the future. 

Also in the Guardian, Timothy Garton-Ash frets about how the rise of nationalist parties might enable the expansionist aims of Vladimir Putin. It is a reasonable concern. But there is no sense of how to satisfy aggrieved voters — who, after all, I think most of us can accept, are not voting out of any love for the Kremlin.

The writer Tom Gara wrote an unintentionally funny tweet yesterday. “It’s very scary,” he brooded:

… that in basically every Western democracy immigration politics is powering a massive far right surge and nobody on the non-far-right seems to have any idea how to deal with it

I dunno — have you considered reducing immigration

Unprecedented demographic changes, after all, are the common threads linking Western European nations that are now experiencing a “far right surge”, and voters have made it very clear that they are unhappy. Have previously liberal voters suddenly become xenophobes and reactionaries or do they have substantive problems with the scale and effects of these changes? No one is obliged to agree with them but you can’t ignore, demonise or trivialise their perspective and then be shocked when it becomes more urgent and bad-tempered. 

At a certain point I’m afraid we’re just going to have to admit it,” sighs Ben Coates, the author of The Rhine and Why the Dutch Are Different, “A surprisingly large proportion of Europeans are actually quite racist.” This kind of sentiment tends to blithely overlook the rest of the world — Pakistan, for example, where Afghan refugees are being forced out in their hundreds of thousands. 

Europeans are absolutely not militant identitarians, except for small ideological minorities, and rightly so. But popular concerns have been ignored, pathologised and patronised continually — pushing generally tolerant people towards different outlets for their opinions.

Meanwhile, one sympathises with Remainers who are grappling with the idea that the continent is not all rosé and bratwurst. It is tempting to wonder if Remainers and Brexiteers will ever switch places. The AC Graylings of tomorrow might demand that Britain keeps control over its institutions in defiance of bigoted Brussels. The Nigel Farages of tomorrow, on the other hand, might look across the English Channel with a wistful sigh.

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