PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron has ratcheted up warnings about the rising threat of far-right nationalism, saying in an interview with a regional French newspaper that complacency was what allowed for the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.
Speaking to Le Courrier Picard, a newspaper that covers northern France, where Macron has been visiting World War One memorials, the president was challenged over comparisons he has made between current events and the 1930s in Europe.gi
The newspaper asked if he wasn't exaggerating by comparing right-wing nationalists today to Germany's Nazis or Italy's fascists, saying he was "distorting the historical record".
"The times are different," Macron acknowledged. "But who won the last European elections in France? The National Front, which everyone seems to have just gotten used to. Who came second in the last regional elections in northern France? The National Front. Who made it through to the second round of the presidential election? The National Front," he said.
The National Front has since been renamed The National Rally by its leader Marine Le Pen, who lost resoundingly to Macron in the run-off of the May 2017 presidential election. Le Pen's party now leads Macron's En Marche in the polls ahead of the European Parliament election next May.
Macron warned that if someone suggests that far-right nationalists are less threatening nowadays than they were in the past, one runs the risk of becoming complacent towards them.
"I would suggest that you reread what was said at the time," the 40-year-old president said.
"Well-educated, well-informed people said that we could get along with the nationalists. As I recall, nobody, not even the wealthiest and the best educated, blocked the rise of Hitler in one country and Mussolini in another.
"I want to draw everyone's attention to this point. Is it the case that nationalist sentiments are rising? Yes. Are the people who are pushing for a return to conflict not those who are gaining ground in a number of European countries? Yes."
Macron, who has introduced a raft of economic reforms since becoming president but saw his popularity fall to a new low of 21 percent last week, has cast the European Parliament election as a showdown between pro-European "progressives" like himself and EU-sceptic populists on the far-right.
Those forces are arguably strongest in France and Italy, where Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini's League party has gained support as its leader goes head-to-head with Brussels.
Macron said the world was seeing a resurgence of authoritarianism, with the risk of arms proliferation.
"We must look these (nationalisms and extremes) in the face and tackle the root causes of the inequalities that exist," said. "That's what I'm trying to do."
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Geert De Clercq)