The New York Times has an article this morning describing the turn towards anti-immigration populism in France, inspired by the renaming of the Gaullist opposition party as The Republicans. This is seen as an attempt to attract voters who have gone over to Marine Le Pen’s National Front, an overtly chauvinist party with a semi-fascist past. The article points to the rise of similar movements in other countries; most worrying is Finland, a country in which the extreme right has played a major political role at key times during the past century, and where a nativist party is now part of the governing coalition.
The irony is that the nativists themselves, in order to expand, have had to move to the left on economic issues. This has been widely noticed with the National Front, whose base was once small entrepreneurs. Nativistis now claim to be the staunchest defenders of the welfare state and the interests of the working class. The steady erosion of social protections and living standards, they say, can be halted only by ending immigration, especially from the “incorrigible” populations of the Middle East and North Africa—i.e. Muslims. The name change in France makes a subtle play for this attitude by claiming the anti-clerical mantle of the French Revolution, now seen as a weapon against the influence of Islam. Yet it also implies a leftward orientation on social and economic matters, since Republicanism has historically meant identification with the goals of the Revolution, as against the conservative, clerical and aristocratic opposition. It perfectly captures the current moment: embracing the nativist Right while pretending to be more Left on other matters.
Meanwhile, the real Right can be found in the halls of power in every major European country. This Right is socially liberal but against exactly the things the populists are trying to preserve: equality, improvement in living standards and generous social protection. The political isolation of Greece within the eurozone, for instance, demonstrates how rentier ideology has completely triumphed over Keynesian and social democratic perspectives throughout the continent. The ostensible socialists are as much a part of this conservative coalition as the official conservatives.
Is it any surprise, under these circumstances, that nativism has taken wing? A large part of the European working class has concluded that scarcity and stagnation are permanent, and that the promises of the Left can’t be trusted any more. All that remains is the politics of exclusion, making sure you have yours by locking the others out. So high unemployment is the new normal? Then the jobs belong to us. Can’t afford the welfare state any more? Send immigrants from poor countries back home. On a gut level it makes perfect sense.
If there is a future for cosmopolitanism in Europe, it needs a credible politics of growth and redistribution.