It's Not the Economy

A Tufts political scientist on what drives Europe’s radical right

David Art

This spring saw two prominent right-wing European politicians in the news: the fiercely anti-Islamic Dutch legislator Geert Wilders, who walked out of budget talks and sparked the April 22 collapse of the country’s coalition government, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s ultra-nationalist National Front, who garnered 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential elections in April.

Both figures generated headlines about the possibility of a swing toward the far right in Western Europe, especially in light of the economic troubles wracking the eurozone. But radical-right movements on the continent are far from new—and the extent of their influence isn’t always what it appears, says David Art, associate professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“There is a tendency now, with the European sovereign debt crisis, to look at radical-right parties and say they’ve come from this crisis of capitalism—to say that they are new and threatening,” says Art, author of Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigration Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

“They are not new, and there is some debate about how threatening they are,” says Art. “The radical right is a part, has been a part and will always be a part of European politics. There has been no sudden surge as a result of protest from this crisis.”

What drives far-right movements in Western European countries is anti-immigration sentiment, leavened with a heavy dose of nationalism, Art says. The intensity and style of the rhetoric varies, and, most notably, so does the level of political success enjoyed by these parties from one country to another. Why, for example, has the Progress Party of Norway remained politically viable, while similar parties in neighboring Sweden have failed to attract voters? Why has the radical right flourished in Austria, but not in Germany?

Those are the types of questions that Art set out to explore when researching his book. The answers, he says, help to explain the continuing role of far-right political parties in European affairs.

Tufts Now: Why have some radical-right parties been successful in winning seats in national parliaments and local elections, while others seem to have no traction, even though all Western European countries are facing similar issues?

David Art: My thesis is essentially that it’s the candidates. Parties that do well have better people. I looked within those parties at the human capital, and simply put, some countries have highly professional candidates. In other cases, the people the radical right finds to lead their parties are not the best people on all sorts of levels—people with very little political experience, without the cognitive skills required to be productive members of parliaments. They’re unable to work with parliamentary colleagues. The radical right ends up imploding in lots of places. But if you have people with skill, they actually do quite well.

Radical-right voters across Europe, in general, fit a profile: they’re male; less educated on average than the rest of the population; they tend to have views that can be described as running from outright racist to skeptical about immigration. The voters all look pretty much the same. But it’s the 50 to 200 people running the party where you see enormous variation. That was one central finding. It’s really the people that matter.

What exactly do you mean by the term “radical right”? How radical, and how far right?

It’s hardly a perfect term. People refer to the same basic set of parties by at least five different names: radical right, extreme right, right-wing populist, far right, neo-nationalist, anti-immigrant. The adjective “right” is important. What is “right” about these parties? It’s not on an economic dimension. The classic leftist economic position is in favor of a lot of state management of economic issues; the right is laissez faire. That’s not what these parties want. They tend toward a much more left-leaning economic program.

It’s the cultural dimension: the resistance to immigration; protection of an imagined national community from immigrants, from forces of globalization, from European integration. The idea they hold is that there is this national identity, and it’s not possible for people coming from other places to obtain it—that there’s something deeply Austrian about people born in Austria, from Austrian parents.

Why call it radical? Because the solutions they call for go far beyond the mainstream. On immigration, they call for a sudden stop to immigration, or even deportation of immigrants, which is something the mainstream parties don’t endorse. Radical-right discourse is much more explosive than that of the mainstream.

How does the European radical right compare to the political right in the U.S.?

There is lots of overlap. I’m convinced that if we did not have a two-party system in the U.S., we would most likely have the equivalent of the French National Front or the Austrian Freedom Party. We’ve already seen a wing of the Republican Party that has made resistance to immigration its centerpiece.

There are differences, however. For one thing, Europe has no “country of immigration,” so there is no equivalent of the American narrative—the stories Americans can tell about the immigrant experience. The other important difference is that, by and large, immigrants don’t vote in Europe, either because the citizenship laws are more restrictive or because the level of politicalization among immigrants is not as high. Here in the U.S., the Latino vote is significant. In Europe, you don’t have a pro-immigrant constituency.

Is the Tea Party similar to the European radical right?

Some initial demographics show that the Tea Party is fairly affluent; its supporters have a higher median income, which is not true with radical-right voters in Europe. Radical-right parties in Europe are not talking about the “small-state” aspect—that’s a distinctly American element. There is a broad consensus in Europe about the welfare state—nobody wants it to go away. Radical-right parties know their voters depend on the welfare state. I also think on issues of immigration, you don’t see the same strong arguments against it from the Tea Party in the same strong, sometimes openly brutal way that you do in Europe. But we don’t have a ton of research on the Tea Party yet.

Has the eurozone fiscal crisis promoted the growth of the radical right?

If you look at electoral totals since the 1990s, radical-right parties have been pretty steady. There was a period in which Europe did not have radical-right parties, from 1945 to 1970, but those 25 years were very, very different both from what preceded them, and from what we have now.

In France, for example, the fiscal crisis has not led to a massive increase in support for Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Marine Le Pen received 18 percent of the vote in the [April] election, but [her father and predecessor] Jean Marie Le Pen got 15 percent in 1995. And it’s not surprising that the National Front has not done better in the fiscal crisis. When the economy is in free fall, I don’t think voters trust Marine Le Pen to make economic policy. In times of economic crisis, voters focus less on culture.

Could radical-right parties force the breakup of the eurozone?

The radical right is generally against bailouts. However, when parties are in the government, particularly in Europe, where there are coalition governments, they can’t always follow through on all the things they say.

Also, not every European state matters equally, and not every radical-right party matters equally. Germany and France are the most important in terms of policymaking. In Germany, radical-right parties are very weak and marginalized. In France, the National Front has been credibly shut out of office. Marine Le Pen may have forced Nicholas Sarkozy to fight for the votes of National Front supporters, but she has no effect on policymaking.

One important exception to the general rule that the radical right tends not to make economic policy in Europe could be the Netherlands. But I think the idea that radical-right parties are going to be able to stop fiscal integration—I think that threat is exaggerated.

Why does Germany lack a significant radical-right presence?

Germany essentially developed a very contrite political culture following the Holocaust, which has made it impossible for any radical-right party to do well. Any party that tries to make anti-immigrant appeals or the same set of arguments as the French National Front is very easy to discredit in Germany by linking it with the Nazi past, which is something Germans all agree is never to be repeated. It’s a uniquely German thing.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at


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