The National Front’s election triumph is the long shadow cast by the broken aspirations left by the Socialist Party’s victory in 2012. The French Socialists had Hollande in the Elysee palace, control of the legislature and a continental mandate to break the austerity regime that Merkel and Sarkozy had enforced. Two years later and Hollande’s second prime minister has just passed another 50 billion euro austerity package. It’s a story of governing having consequences and Marie Le Pen’s right-wing nationalism offering itself as the political reckoning.
The French socialists are not isolated in their fate. It doesn’t take long to see the wreckage of the former political giants of social democracy strewn across the continent. PASOK, which in 2009 took 43% of the vote in general elections, won just 8% support from Greek voters this weekend, condemning the party to the role of New Democracy’s sidekick in the coalition government. In Spain, Alfredo Rubalcaba of the Spanish Socialist Party has conceded to a change in party leadership after the party’s dismal performance Sunday. In Portugal, the Socialist Party faces its own leadership questions after beating the center-right coalition by a disappointing margin of less than 4%. Even after nearly three years in opposition to deeply unpopular center-right austerity governments, Spanish and Portuguese socialists still can’t convince voters to reward them with power, let alone a majority.
While the socialist parties of Europe collectively suffer from a shared crisis of reconciling their commitment to the European project with the social democratic convictions of their base, the advance of the far-right on the continent doesn’t offer such a unified reading. In places like Austria, the 20% share won by the Freedom Party returns the party to strength it previously had. In Greece, Golden Dawn’s won 9.4%, after only winning half a percent in 2009, carving out a new space in Greek politics for a party that has verified its fascism with a violent, murderous campaign against leftists and migrants.
We don’t have to paint all these far-right, right-wing nationalist forces with the same brush in order to fully despise their politics, nor should we scapegoat them for the continent’s xenophobia. After all, it was Spanish police who earlier this year fired rubber bullets and tear gas at migrants swimming to shore. Over a dozen migrants drowned and the actions of the police were defended by the conservative interior minister who threatened those criticizing the police with legal action rather than launch an investigation into their conduct. Golden Dawn would surely envy the opportunity to commit such an atrocity with impunity.
Europe’s center is hardly suited to defend democracy from existential threats like Golden Dawn. Who could forget the technocratic governments installed in Greece and Italy? Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos were made prime ministers without so much as a single vote being cast for them in either a constituency or for a party list that carried their names. But those who would today offer themselves as defenders of democracy shrugged this off as a typical government reshuffle between elections or “national salvation”. When there weren’t technocratic governments, there were memorandums by the Troika (European Central Bank, IMF & European Commission) imposing policy measures in Ireland and across Southern Europe.
By no means am I arguing that the success of far-right parties has no consequences. The National Front would use the discontent over austerity to break apart Europe along nationalist lines. The existing divisions between debtor and creditor states already fan nationalist grievances, a dangerous political device that the far-right aren’t alone in tapping. Narratives portraying the nation as a victim leave little room for minorities or forces which prefer social conflict among classes. It’s easy to unleash nationalism, far more difficult to restrain its passions.
At the end of a right-wing nationalist break-up of the European project, would those who suffered from the effects of EU imposed austerity be better off? I fully Doubt it. It’s here where the social movements from 2011 have made a difference. The success of Syriza in Greece and several left-wing parties in Spain can’t possibly represent the political content of those protests, but they are a consequence of those demonstrations. Crucially, they’ve created political space for those who despise the far-right and don’t wish to close ranks around the centrist parties who are responsible for so much of the misery across the continent. Nationalism or austerity is a false choice, but it must be defied by building another Europe that has no place for razor-wire fences, Troika memorandums, or Marine Le Pen.