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Push it to the limit: What might be too extreme for Europe's far-right parties?

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage takes part in clay pigeon shooting during a visit to Catton Hall in Frodsham, Cheshire, while on the election campaign trail, 20 June 2024
Reform UK leader Nigel Farage takes part in clay pigeon shooting during a visit to Catton Hall in Frodsham, Cheshire, while on the election campaign trail, 20 June 2024 Copyright Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Copyright Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
By Andrew Naughtie
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National Rally, Reform UK and others have all rejected allegations of extremism, but drawing the line isn't simple.

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Two European elections are threatening to greatly elevate the hardline right in two countries that have until now deprived it of a breakout moment.

In France’s snap legislative elections, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) topped the polls in last weekend’s first round, giving it a strong chance of winning enough seats to force Emmanuel Macron to “cohabit” with it in government.

Meanwhile, the British election this week is expected to see a surge for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, a rebranded version of his former Brexit Party. While the UK’s electoral system means it may only win one seat, it looks likely that Reform will get a significant share of the vote — possibly even pulling even with the ruling Conservatives.

Coming off the back of June’s European elections, in which numerous far-right parties made gains, RN and Reform’s performances will be watched closely for any further indication that the European right is marching toward the extreme.

Yet while many of their opponents and much of the news media describe both parties as “far-right”, leading figures in both parties have long insisted they are nothing of the sort. Instead, they claim to speak for “the people” with a message blending together hardline anti-immigration sentiment and an appeal to “traditional values”.

So how far outside the norm are these parties, really?

Moderate extremism

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said that for all its often overt xenophobia and Islamophobia, Reform UK is a “populist radical right party” rather than on the “extreme right”.

"Farage is all about drawing a distinction between 'the people' and 'the elite' which has supposedly betrayed us all,” he told Euronews, “particularly when it comes to the kind of immigration that apparently threatens to change the country's ‘culture,’ whatever that means."

"But his party doesn't have roots in often violent, unashamedly fascist underground movements for which race is still a matter not just of cultural but of genetic differences; nor is Reform UK's commitment to parliamentary democracy in question.”

Reform is indeed outwardly gentler on these matters than many similar European parties.

Nigel Farage.
Nigel Farage.Kirsty Wigglesworth/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

The Sweden Democrats, who prop up their country’s centre-right coalition government but are not part of it, have invested serious effort into separating themselves from some of the elements that came together to found them. One of their antecedents was a party called “Keep Sweden Swedish” — a slogan the party used well into the 1990s.

Still, others are struggling not just to shed associations with their extremist past, but to disprove allegations that they are hosting them even now. The Finns party, which is a member of Finland’s governing coalition, has been rocked by a series of scandals revealing that current elected members have participated in neo-Nazi rallies where symbols harking back to the Third Reich were on prominent display.

Most notorious is Alternative for Germany (AfD), which German federal authorities have placed under surveillance because of its suspected ties to far-right extremist groups.

While the party insists it has no relationship with neo-Nazis, scandals involving its members keep coming: one of its most prominent leaders, Björn Höcke, was convicted this year for using a banned Nazi slogan at a rally. Nonetheless, AfD polls consistently well, scoring nearly 16% of the national vote in this year’s European elections. 

Even RN has drawn the line at AfD and its antics. It refused to tolerate the party’s membership of the European Parliament’s Identity and Democracy group (ID) after a leading parliamentarian, Maximilian Krah, told an Italian newspaper that he would “never say that anyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal”.

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When his remarks were published, RN and several parties from other countries’ delegations voted to kick AfD out of the group, which is already the furthest-right in the parliament. 

But moves like these do not mean that RN isn’t a far-right party.

Dark history

According to the writer Nabila Ramdani, whose book Fixing France argues that the rise of the far right owes much to the setup of the Fifth Republic’s institutions, the party’s deep roots in racist nationalism in its original incarnation, the National Front (FN), cannot be overlooked.

“If you look at their history, the RN is a terrifying party,” she told Euronews. “Nazi nostalgia remains strong among some of its rank and file. So does prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, not least because of the bitter resentment over the loss of France’s colonial Empire in Africa and North Africa, and especially Algeria, in the 1960s."

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“The FN was founded in 1972 by Marine Le Pen’s father, the now convicted racist and Holocaust denier, Jean-Marie Le Pen,” she points out. “Those who made up the original FN leadership committee included men who had fought in the Waffen SS during World War II or else served with the Milice, the French paramilitary police units that collaborated with the Third Reich.”

While these sorts of Nazi connections are exactly what is usually evoked by the term far-right, Ramdani insists it’s also crucial to remember the party’s connections to the Algerian War and its links to those who committed some of the atrocities for which it remains notorious.

“Others who dominated the party were convicted criminals from the Secret Army Organisation — the OAS terrorist organisation made up of Army and police officers committed to seeing Algeria remaining a French colony,” she explains.

“Founding members also included some who fought in Algeria, including Le Pen Senior himself, who was a paratrooper and intelligence officer there in 1957 and was involved in acts of torture. The 28-year-old lieutenant described in his own words his role in Algeria as ‘a mixture between being an SS officer and a Gestapo agent’.”

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As for the party’s current leadership, Ramdani sees little evidence of a meaningful break with the past.

“Marine Le Pen claims to have softened and diversified the party, but she still regularly complains that ‘immigrants turn France into a gigantic squat’ and that ‘entire neighbourhoods are taken over by foreigners’. She very much remains a chip off the old block.”

Le vice Anglais

The UK, meanwhile, does have a long history of racist far-right political parties, but unlike many European countries, it has rarely seen them achieve electoral success on any meaningful level.

A shocking exception came in the 2009 European elections, when the explicitly ethnonationalist British National Party (BNP) won two of the UK’s seats after a campaign fought on an Islamophobic and anti-immigration platform.

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The BNP was highly stigmatised, and its moment as an effective electoral force was fleeting. After Nick Griffin, the Holocaust denier who led it to its high point in 2009, stood down, the party rapidly atrophied and today barely exists. Instead, the UK is host to a smattering of extreme right movements operating on the fringes of party politics and standing candidates in only a few seats where they struggle to win any votes at all.

“The line between different far-right variants is both fine and blurred, particularly when it comes to people involved at the grassroots,” Bale says. “That's especially the case, perhaps, in the UK. After all, anybody with any political nous knows that, under first-past-the-post, the extreme right parties that they might otherwise be drawn to stand little or no chance of winning any seats. And so, as a result, they may well gravitate instead to a populist radical right party.”

Compared with the parties that dwell on the fringe, Reform is not just moderate but highly professionalised, politically savvy and able to mount a well-funded nationwide campaign — albeit without much hope of winning more than a handful of seats, thanks to the UK’s choose-one electoral system.

It also appeals to a noticeably broad section of voters, whose values tend to combine relatively left-wing economic views with traditionalist right-wing cultural and social beliefs.

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While Reform is unlikely to score a higher share of the vote than the Tories, polling indicates that it’s not impossible, and a recent US-style rally in Birmingham drew a strikingly large crowd to hear Farage and others celebrate the party’s rise.

But whereas Farage hoped to spend the last phase of the campaign celebrating his imminent triumph, he has instead been forced to respond to a series of revelations about his party’s candidates and activists.

Undercover revelations

Several have been caught making outlandishly racist and offensive statements; others have been revealed as former supporters of the BNP and Facebook followers of a fringe fascist activist. The latest shocking story involves a candidate who referred to people with autism as "vegetables" as opposed to "reasoned humans".

Most shocking of all was undercover footage shot by journalists from broadcaster Channel 4 who followed Reform activists and party workers around Clacton, the seat Farage is trying to win for himself.

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In the footage, broadcast a week to go before the election, one canvasser is seen suggesting that the army use migrants arriving on small boats for “target practice” and using a highly offensive racist term to describe Prime Minister Rishi Sunak; another describes the pride flag as a “degenerate” emblem representing child abusers and says that under a Reform government, the police would act as “paramilitaries”. 

Farage has publicly disowned several of the people involved and insists he is "angry" about the revelations of racism in the ranks. But he has also sought to reframe the story of the documentary as a conspiracy theory, claiming that one of the people concerned was an actor paid by the broadcaster to paint the party in a positive light.

The party has provided no evidence to support this and has not extended the claim to cover the other people caught on camera.

So bad is the fallout from the documentary that Sunak gave an uncharacteristically impassioned interview in which he repeated the slur against him to emphasise its offensive nature. Two Reform candidates have since announced they are leaving the party and endorsing their Conservative Party rivals.

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One of them, Georgie David, wrote on social media that while has "no doubt" that Farage and Reform's senior leadership are not racist, "the vast majority of candidates are indeed racist, misogynistic, and bigoted".

"I do not wish to be directly associated with people who hold such views that are so vastly opposing to my own and what I stand for," she wrote. “I also have been significantly frustrated and dismayed by the failure of the Reform Party’s leadership to tackle this issue in any meaningful way, and their attempts to instead try to brush it under the carpet or cry foul play."

Reform co-leader Richard Tice claimed David had been bribed to leave by the Conservative Party and that her words had been written by the party's HQ. He provided no evidence.

Plausible deniability

Contacted for comment, Reform shared a statement from Farage saying that RN would be a "disaster" for France and "even worse for the economy than the current lot," but did not comment on problems with its own candidates.

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And for now, it seems the steady flow of disastrous stories has not hurt Reform’s polling much. According to Bale, that is partly because Reform's unusual setup allows it to defy some of the normal rules of political campaign physics.

“The structure of Reform UK — which is a company of which Nigel Farage is the majority shareholder rather than, like most parties, a bona fide membership organisation — means he can claim a degree of 'plausible deniability' when people campaigning for it start spouting overtly racist stuff."

“Since they aren't officially part of the party even if they ride around wearing its pale blue rosettes, then he can claim that they don't represent it or its values, attitudes and policies.  Whether those claims are convincing or not remains to be seen,” he concluded.

Within a week, it will be clear just how much of their respective electorates RN and Reform are able to win over.

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In France, RN faces the prospect that its more mainstream rivals will tactically drop out of runoffs where another party or group is best placed to beat it, potentially thwarting their aim of forming a governing bloc. But whatever the result, the elections have guaranteed the party’s relevance between now and the 2027 presidential election.

Reform, meanwhile, is expected to win only a tiny handful of seats at most, and probably no more than one. But that would put Nigel Farage in parliament on his eighth attempt — combined with a share of the national vote that previous hard-right parties could only dream of.

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