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Why are France’s far-right politicians paying visits to Viktor Orban?

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By Lauren Chadwick
French far-right leader Marine le Pen, left, shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary, 26 October 2021.
French far-right leader Marine le Pen, left, shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary, 26 October 2021.   -   Copyright  Laszlo Balogh/AP Photo

“Who said that gallantry was only French?” far-right politician Marine Le Pen wrote on social media alongside a photo of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán greeting her as she embarked on her first official visit to the country.

Serenaded by musicians and placed alongside the Hungarian prime minister as his equal in a press conference, the French far-right presidential candidate was greeted with great fanfare in Budapest.

It remains to be seen whether this warm reception will translate into political success back at home, where she currently is polling just behind President Emmanuel Macron while facing a new challenge from far-right tv pundit Eric Zemmour, who is quickly gaining in opinion polls ahead of France's April 2022 presidential elections.

Le Pen's trip to Hungary just a month after Zemmour travelled there for an anti-immigration, anti-Islam, pro-family summit hosted by Orbán shows her desire to mobilise a far-right base, experts say, as well as the challenge from Zemmour who is likely to declare his candidacy soon.

Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal, more conservative-leaning than her aunt on social issues, also attended the far-right conference in September with Zemmour.

"Marine Le Pen is now fighting against Zemmour to catch voters, not only of the extreme right but say the most conservative fringe of the [right-wing] Republicains," said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean Jaures Foundation.

"Will this visit to Budapest be beneficial or not, because, in one sense, it gives the impression that Marine Le Pen is trying to outdo Zemmour when it comes to radical policies. And on the other hand, she wants to continue bringing the National Rally [into the mainstream], and there's a contradiction there."

Annika Werner, an expert in European far-right parties from the Australian National University, says that radical right-wing politicians have "two options, depending on which voters they want to attract."

They can try to distance themselves from each other to attract more mainstream voters, or "if they want to communicate with their own supporters, mobilise and rally their loyalists, they will associate themselves with other radical right figures, especially if these are very successful and strong," Werner said.

'Social status'

French far-right politicians are interested in Viktor Orban because of his longevity and adherence to similar nationalist, anti-immigration views, experts say.

"The three of them Marion Marechal, Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen have an interest in Orban because he has been prime minister of Hungary for a long time. And together with the Polish prime minister, he embodies the successes of the illiberal democracy,” said Camus.

Mabel Berezin, a professor of sociology at Cornell University who studies fascism and right-wing populist politics, said the French far-right figures are visiting Hungary as well for "social status".

"People sort of want to be seen in the same space with [Orban]. And why do they want to be seen in the same space? It's sort of like you might go to some prestigious party somewhere, and it's not so much that you really want to talk to everybody there, but you want to be seen there and get some reflected glory or social status," she explained.

Werner says that the logic of meeting with other far-right politicians is that it gives them legitimacy,

"If they associate themselves with electorally strong figures like Prime Minister Orban, they can show to their own supporters that their radical right profile is a winning proposition," Werner said.

A Central European 'model'

While Orban faces a unified challenge in Hungary's upcoming 2022 elections, Orban has been in power in Hungary for 11 years with his ruling Fidesz party, bringing in several constitutional and court changes and championing what he calls “illiberal democracy”.

Describing his political philosophy in a 2014 speech in Romania, Orbán distinguished Western democracy from his model, stating he would depart from the European democratic model. He hailed Russia, China and Turkey as countries that were successful.

Under his watch, Hungary went from “free” to “partly free”, according to a Freedom House ranking of countries, the only European Union country to do so.

In the EU’s most recent row with Orban, Brussels brought legal action against Hungary over its controversial anti-LGBT law, the Children Protection Act.

One part of the law brought by Orban’s party prohibits the portrayal of homosexuality and gender reassignment in content for minors, such as school education material and television programmes.

The EU is currently still negotiating with Hungary over €7.2 billion in grants from the pandemic recovery fund.

Steadfastly anti-migration, Orban erected a border fence along the country's southern border during the 2015 migrant crisis.

"Back in the 1990s, when communism disappeared from the scene and those countries became liberal democracies, we in Western Europe were exporting our model of democracy to Central Europe. Now it looks like it's the other way around," said Camus.

"It's very interesting to see that some of the ideas of the right today are not coming from the United States, are not coming from the UK, or from other European countries, but from Central Europe, which is quite unusual," he said.

Le Pen on Tuesday offered support for Hungary in its battles with the EU, much like when she met with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Brussels days before her trip to Budapest.

After her meeting with Morawiecki, she criticised the EU's "unacceptable blackmail" over a Polish court's ruling that the country's laws have primacy over those of the European Union, emphasising her support for Hungary and Poland's battles over EU law.

Orban has also drawn attention from far-right pundits across the Atlantic.

US television pundit Tucker Carlson made a heavily-televised trip to Hungary, travelling to the country's southern border and praising the border wall as well as Orban's other policies. He argued that Orban had been "vilified" in the US and Europe.

Far-right leaders seek to unify at the EU level

While Le Pen is not as right-leaning as Orban, particularly on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, Tuesday’s visit was not the first time that she had joined with Orban’s party at the European level.

In July, members of Orban’s party Fidesz were present with Le Pen at a meeting of far-right European parties, seeking to create one party group in Europe, a project that has been underway for some time.

Sixteen right-wing populist parties from 14 countries issued a joint statement calling for a European Union based on sovereign member states instead of a federal bloc, which they say is envisioned.

“The goal of this is to add only one common political grouping in the EU Parliament as soon as possible so as to challenge the European People's Party, the mainstream right conservative group,” said Camus.

In a way, unifying and joining other far-right figures can help them to legitimise their policies and views, experts say, and prove they are accepted outside of their countries.

"By associating themselves with Orban, French far-right politicians can communicate to their own supporters that these policies are legitimate and winning policies, if only they become as electorally strong as Orban," Werner said.

"This gives their supporters an aspirational goal and motivation to keep working for their party. Given that the French radical right fared relatively badly during the regional elections earlier this year, they might need a little motivation boost."

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