Rethinking secularism, World affairs:

The new faces of the European far-right

posted by Nilüfer Göle

Two hitherto marginal but rising forces proved pivotal in the 2009 European elections: a burgeoning Green movement and a renascent far-right. On one hand, the British National Party won its first entry to the European Parliament, while in the Netherlands a rich multicultural heritage has been challenged by the electoral victories of the nativist Party for Freedom (PVV). On the other hand, the breakthrough of environmental groups on the political scene was celebrated everywhere in Europe. In Germany, where there was already a strong Green tradition, and in France, they outstripped the center parties in unprecedented fashion. But since the election, the actions of the Greens have remained virtually invisible, while the far-right never ceases to occupy the public stage, shaping societal debate across Europe and positioning itself as a viable alternative political force.

Republicanist France, which believed itself immune to the ominous rise of far-right political parties, is no exception. With the ascent of Marine Le Pen to the head of the National Front and her growing popularity in the polls, France joins the surge of nationalist parties that is sweeping over all of Europe. We must understand the new dynamics that underlie this relapse toward a continent-wide far-right movement: in its latest change of face, the far-right misappropriates the legacy of 1968 at the same time that it targets Islam under the guise of defending national values, just as its leaders claim to embody the value of personal liberty all the while asserting their belonging to the “land” of popular imagination, thus forging a new rhetorical repertoire and introducing it into European political culture. The movement is garnering newfound legitimacy by taking up themes of identity that have, for a decade, continued to gain purchase in European public debates. The far-right parties’ entrance into these debates procures, in particular, an audience for their spokespeople, who stand out in these arenas through their combativeness toward Islam and through their irreverence, which breaks down former taboos surrounding multiculturalism.

The new faces of the far-right have gained power in their political parties by virtue of their capacity to make a place for themselves in debate—in other words, by manufacturing public personalities—as well as by stirring up controversies over the presence of Islam in Europe. They take great care over their self-presentation, which is given precedence over their political representation and their function in the party. We are witnessing a process whereby the presence of actors in the public sphere and the media determines the place they occupy in the political arena. However, public popularity and political engagement do not always follow the same logic, and, indeed, they sometimes come into tension with each other. There are those among the French public, for instance, who declare the National Front an obstacle to the popularity of Marine Le Pen.

Hence, we face a movement that has been revived politically by its entry to the public sphere, through which it acquires legitimacy for its ideas and puts an end to the stigma of the far-right. These parties are no longer at the end of the political spectrum but seek their political legitimacy at the center of public opinion, and they do so in large part by making Islam a common enemy. Thinkers from the republican right and intellectuals from the left both express perplexity over the rise of right-wing movements that do not hesitate to endorse egalitarian, feminist, and secular ideas. They have been dispossessed of the ideas that previously guaranteed the far-right’s restriction to the margins of the political system.

The rising stars of the European far-right, such as Marine Le Pen in France, in fact scramble the divide between right and left, thus distinguishing themselves from the preceding generation of conservatives. They sometimes display a habitus evocative of European counter-culture—something completely out of step with the style of their predecessors. The leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache, who often sports a tee-shirt emblazoned with an effigy of Che, and the Swiss politician Oskar Freysinger, who wears his long hair in a ponytail, do not hesitate to borrow the emblems of cultural revolt. In choosing Islam as a target, they make themselves out to be defenders of sexual equality, feminism, and freedom of expression, as well as supporters of the fight against homophobia and anti-Semitism. Hijacking the cultural legacy of the left, they promote those values to which the preceding, patriarchal, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic far-right was hostile.

Similarly, Marine Le Pen, while profiting from her lineage, aims for political renewal by breaking away from her father’s tradition and its representation of the “real” (i.e., Catholic and working-class) France. If the father made himself spokesman for the “little people,” in opposition to the established elites associated with the Grand Écoles education system, the daughter, a lawyer and Member of the European Parliament, does not oppose the Republic’s elite but, on the contrary, claims to be a defender of its values. She even goes so far as to claim to embody those values; she emblazons herself in republican ideals, defending secularism and adopting a feminist stance. She does not hesitate to endorse ideas that were introduced by a specific, and influential, form of feminism in support of her fight against the Islamic veil and the perceived threat of Muslim communitarianism.

Marine Le Pen has established herself through her declarations on controversies surrounding Islam. She attracted public attention by comparing Friday prayers on rue de la Myrha in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, which is home to a significant number of Muslims, to the German occupation. This comparison earned her a complaint for inciting racial hatred but also assured her a bill of entry to the public arena. She denounces the burkha and then demands even more comprehensive laws, setting herself up against “mosque-cathedrals,” polygamy, and the proscription of pork from public cafeterias. In her eyes, all Muslim religious practices constitute an instrumentalization of religion for political purposes. And according to her, any tolerance of Muslims or minority rights leads to discrimination against those of “French” descent.

It was likewise by arousing a sensitive debate around the construction of minarets in Switzerland that Oscar Freysinger, hitherto a relative unknown in the political landscape, won popularity on a European scale. Moreover, Switzerland, a neutral, non-EU country that willingly places itself at Europe’s margins, also made an entrance into European politics through this debate. The Swiss referendum became a major reference point and moved to the center of European public discourse. A Swiss poster opposing the construction of Minarets that was used during the referendum, and which depicts the Swiss flag pierced by minarets in the shape of bullets and overlaid by a woman wearing a burkha, has been appropriated and used by almost all the other European far-right parties. Its graphics communicate a feeling of invasion and menace to the nation posed by foreign forces—a representation of Islam that is far from the realities of Muslims in Europe, a dehumanized version of Islam, faceless and faithless.

In the Netherlands, a short film titled Fitna (an Arabic word that signifies social disorder or chaos), produced by Geert Wilders, current leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), in 2008, takes up the theme of the purported Islamic menace in terms of the question of women in Islam. In this film, images of Islamic terrorism and stoning are intermingled with images of women in burkhas. Wilders explicitly invites Europeans to “defend their freedom by halting Islamization.” In order to do so, he suggests a ban on the sale of the Qur‘an, which he compares to Mein Kampf.

Thus, like Marine Le Pen, the other leaders of Europe’s far-right parties have constructed their careers and redefined the political agenda on the basis of controversies over Islam. The Austrian Freedom Party organizes anti-mosque campaigns; the Lega Nord in Italy initiates “pig parades” to desecrate land reserved for the construction of mosques; in France, the Riposte Laïque makes appeals for people to rally around an “apéritif saucisson pinard” for the celebration of June 18, the anniversary of de Gaulle’s famous speech to the people of occupied France. In other words, we see a repertoire of action that takes its inspiration and draws its references entirely from a battle against Islam. National values are thus defined in opposition to Islamic culture; accordingly, these movements valorize emblems of local French cuisine such as cochon (pork) and pinard (cheap wine), both of which are haram.

Indeed, the rise of neo-populist movements illustrates well the concern over a sense of national identity and belonging, that is, the concern over a conception of identity that posits the national community as a homogeneous group of white Christians that is thus incompatible with Islam. Meanwhile, the difficulty in naming these movements indicates a change in the rhetorical register of the far-right. We can no longer trace a direct evolution of xenophobic and anti-immigration policies to the 1970s. Today, the category of race assumes religious overtones. Patriarchal conservatism and anti-Semitism have been overshadowed in favor of the so-called national (i.e., supposedly, not universal) values of personal liberty, freedom of expression, and sexual liberty.

These movements converge at the European level, yet the themes vary according to national context. Nordic countries, which are more concerned with sexual liberties, highlight the fight against homophobia, whereas France, with its attachment to its secular heritage, defends republican education. Muslims are under pressure to prove their national loyalty by demonstrably subscribing to these values; sometimes they are put to the test by demands of feminism, sometimes by tolerance of homosexuality. European democracy, as Eric Fassin has written, is becoming a “sexual democracy,” where questions of gender and sexuality provoke and promote numerous public controversies.

The term populist is no longer suitable for grasping the significance of these movements. As Jacques Rancière states, racism today is not a “popular passion” but simply a “racist passion on high.” This logic of the state, he writes, will be “supported primarily not by what we know as backwards social groups but by a large section of the intellectual elite [. . .], by an intelligentsia that is known as a leftist, republican, and secular intelligentsia.” The intellectuals of this line submitted to the logic of the state and wound up accomplices in the narrowing of public space and the legitimization of prohibition and exclusion. An entire intellectual and political arsenal for thinking about the relationship between the public and cultural and religious difference is falling into disuse. The principles that guarantee democratic pluralism and allow new social groups to integrate as citizens are criticized and even attacked head-on. Thus, ideals such as religious minority rights, freedom of worship, and multiculturalism are no longer used to think about difference. Muslim citizens suffer the loss of a viable political language and access to the public sphere. They are not invited to participate, except for those who attempt to adhere in mimetic fashion to the ideas of the secular, republican, and feminist intelligentsia, and thus turn away from Islam.

Muslims are issuing forth from their immigrant status and seeking, in this post-migratory phase, to establish the conditions of their citizenship by making their religious signs visible in public space. Presenting themselves as guardians of this public space, new faces have emerged on the far-right to bar entry to these new citizens. And any talk that calls into question the use of the term “Islamophobia” only contributes to the ascendancy of the new figures of nationalism and nativism in the public arena. We could soon see the sign “No Entry to Muslims” on the doors of the European public sphere.

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4 Responses to “The new faces of the European far-right”

  1. The cultural and political future of Europe looks quite gloomy from Nilüfer Göle’s pointed and persuasive analyses. However, I do think that the concepts of “state” and “nation” need to be separated, especially when we look for possible “solutions” to political problems that are being caused by this new brand of pan-European nationalism. It is true that belonging to a national identity is relative to particular contexts, but what Göle articulates so effectively here is the formation of a pan-European idea of “the nation” and national sentiment that is constituted almost exclusively by a common (mis)reading and (mis)representation of “Islam” and Muslims. In this way, the “nation” has become the driving force in both “public popularity” and “political engagement.” Unfortunately, this is not only true for the likes of Marine Le Pen, but also for critical theorists such as Julia Kristeva, who had identified as politically problematic and ethically reprehensible both the rationalist-nationalist contractual and the feudal-spiritualistic identitarian models of the nation-state (see Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves). However, in her recent work Kristeva has insisted on the category of the nation as the site where one redresses political and cultural problems of the stranger and the foreigner; she writes, “First of all, I believe that in order to fight the state of national depression that we are experiencing in France (but not only in France) as a result of globalization and the influx of immigrants, and also in order to oppose maniacal reactions to this depression (such as that of the Front National), it is important to restore national confidence” (Hatred and Forgiveness, 13). One wonders what happened to the Kristeva who had prophetically announced: “Uncanny, foreignness is within us: we are our own foreigners, we are divided” (Strangers to Ourselves, 181). In my view, the real problem is the unexamined unethical restoration of the “nation” in the political functioning of the state and society in general. I would think that any possible solution lies in disarticulating and struggling against the nation’s absolutist appropriation of the state.

  2. avatar Rogier van Reekum says:

    This post gives a good and multifaceted view of what is happening in Europe. Yet I would like to make two remarks:

    1. Göle reiterates the idea that the Netherlands is losing a “rich multicultural heritage”. But to lose such a heritage the Netherlands would have to have had one in the first place. This is not the case. There was some governmental lip-service to “retaining the identity of newcomers” (1979-1989) and of course an embrace of the idea (yet not always the practice) of anti-racism. In terms of policy there were a few, often inconsequential provisions for “minorities” which were always already put in place in order to speed up the integration of cultural others into the national fold. This has been changing already since 1989.

    2. Related to the first point I think we should watch out not to fall into a kind of nostalgia for a time before these new movements came up (not that Göle is doing that here!). As my first point suggests: things weren’t much better in the 70s, 80s or 90s. They were just a bit less politicized. Anti-immigrant movements lacked the organizational strength, the media platforms and the right kind of rhetorical mix in order to capitalize on the always already existing anxieties of the electorate and the nativist logic of the nation-state as such. The recent politicization of migration and difference are certainly not an improvement, but they do not represent a retreat from a more felicitous situation either. On the brighter side, the issue of migration is one of the focal point around which—maybe, finally—a European public sphere can amalgamate.

  3. avatar Carmen says:

    I would like to add two thoughts based on observations and conversations from my few interactions with members of a number of ‘Bürgerinitiativen’ (citizens’ initiatives) against what they perceive as the growing threat of Islam to Europe in form of mosques and Islamic clothing like different forms of veils in public spaces in Germany:

    Some of the people I talked to have their political roots in the Green party and ascribe themselves to the generation of ’68. They also largely subscribe to their principles, however, see exactly these principles threatened by the lack of contestation of Muslim influence in the Green party. They harshly criticize Cem Özdemir, co-chairman of the party and son of Turkish migrants, for his so called lenience vis-à-vis Muslims and the ‘devastating influence’ of Muslim organizations. Geert Wilders and the PVV are their role models. It is an interesting and worrying amalgam in which the ’68 generation and the green movement also play an ambiguous role.

    The role of gender and gender relations is fascinating: two men related independently to me how, in their youth, they were in love with a woman from a Muslim family. The response was in both cases negative, which they ascribed to them being Muslims and therefore could date a non-Muslim. Leaving aside the question whether these stories are true or not, I find it quite intriguing that it did not occur to those two men, who support feminism as they say, that maybe the women just did not want to date them for whatever reason of their own. The ‘availability’ of Muslim women to non-Muslims seems to be a major concern and a litmus test for women’s liberation.

  4. avatar Yolande Jansen says:

    1. Göle gives a good insight in the transformation of the European far right, but she confines herself too much to a Western European context. In Central and Eastern Europe, the far right is not so much directed against Islam, but mostly against the Roma while also being anti-Semitic. It has led to a degree of violence against the Roma hitherto unknown in Western Europe against Muslims, with several of them killed, and many of them terrorized by extremist vigilantes. The far right Central and Eastern European parties have at least partly gone through similar transformations from the Western ones, as we can see when comparing the characteristics of Marine Le Pen with those of Krisztina Morvai and Gábor Vona, the most prominent Jobbik policitians. (Jobbik is the Hungarian far right party.) Morvai is a former human rights lawyer and a feminist, Vona studied history and psychology before entering politics: they at least partly display the same kind of ‘hijacking of the culture of the left’ that the Western European far right is doing.

    Göle is not alone in her perhaps too exclusive focus on the Islamophobic side of the European far right. Göle refers to Rancière’s analysis of contemporary state racism, in which he talks about the creation of a stereotype of undesirable subjects by ‘the conflation among migrant, immigrant, reactionary, Islamist, male chauvinist and terrorist’. Ironically, he pronounced these words at a meeting called ‘Why the Roma?’ which was organised at the time of the eviction of Romani migrants from France back to Romania in September 2010. (For a view concentrated on the Romaphobic side of Europe, see Europe’s Romaphobia; Problematization, Securitization, Nomadization, Environment and Planning D, 2011, by Huub van Baar.)

    It would be good to take a systematic comparative approach of the contemporary racisms against Roma and Muslims. That would help us, on the one hand, to question the focus on religion in thinking about the status of Muslims in Europe that the framing in terms of secularism (both for and against) has made us used to. A comparative approach could lead us to be talking more about state racism as a European tradition taking new forms (as Rancière reminds us), about new media and new processes of stereotyping, fear of poverty, fear of difference, the unforeseen side-effects of European minority governance, and on how to reclaim the history of humanist Europe for a pluralist left. Comparing the transformations and studying the intersections of the new far right in Western and in Central and Eastern Europe might also help us to see how far to the centre the far right movement has already gotten in a united Europe, and it would perhaps bring to light more prominently the inability—or even unwillingness, to think with Rancière—of the European left, conservative and Christian-democratic parties to find answers to these movements.

    2. I mostly agree with Rogier van Reekum’s reaction to Göle about Dutch multiculturalism, where he says that the ‘rich Dutch multicultural heritage’ that Göle is talking about never existed. I think van Reekum’s remark could be extended to the larger European context: in several European countries there is talk about a ‘seismic shift’ from multicultural policies in the 80s and 90s to policies of ‘civic integration’ around the turn of the millennium. (For example in France and Germany; and also Britain to a certain extent. See for a detailed account ‘The Multiculturalism Backlash’, eds. Steven Vertovec and Suzanne Wessendorf, Routledge 2010.) In all of these countries, policies were called multicultural, pluralist or respectful of difference in the nineties. Many of these policies were top-down, and bad at supporting the self-organisation of ethnic and religious minorities or their empowerment in the national and European contexts. But, and here I agree with Göle more than with van Reekum, the transformation that has taken place is not just a matter of the degree of the politicization of migration, and we shouldn’t take the risk of bagatellising what is happening today: we only have to take a look at the Europe-wide spread of nationalist integration-tests, the cruel ‘return’ policies for non-documented migrants and their children, the surge of verbal and sometimes even physical violence against minorities all over Europe, to have, perhaps, some nostalgia for the eighties and nineties, and most certainly to feel the need for an egalitarian and critical multiculturalism recovered for a European future.

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