Wrong About the Right Stuff

Not all Europe’s “right-wingers” fit the hackneyed profile the press and pols force on them.

What does it mean to be “far right”? Who qualifies as a right-wing “extremist”? Quite a lot of European politicians think that they know. Yesterday British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called on “democratic people of all persuasions to stand together in solidarity against extremist policies.” Romano Prodi, president of the European Union, has also recently joined many others in congratulating France on the rejection of “extremism” in French politics. Expect to hear more of them weigh in later this week, after the Dutch elections Wednesday.

Quite a lot of journalists think they know, too. Two weeks ago, the Economist published a neatly drawn chart listing “far right parties in Europe,” showing what percentage of the vote each one had obtained, country by country. The BBC’s Web site also now contains a nifty chart that lets you click on an interactive map and thereby gauge the state of the “far right” in each nation of Western Europe.

I am as guilty as anyone else in overusing these terms: Sometimes “far right” is just a simpler phrase to use than “anti-establishment, pro-free-market, anti-immigration, possibly racist right,” when you don’t feel you have enough space to explain the details of a particular party or politician—but I won’t do it again. In the wake of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s somewhat freakish success in the first round of the French presidential elections, and the shocking murder of the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn almost immediately afterward, I have concluded that it is now time to call a total moratorium on the use of the phrases “extremism” and “far right” in political debate, since it is becoming clear that nobody has the slightest idea anymore what they mean.

Certainly over the past few days, quite a number of people, most notably Andrew Sullivan, have pointed out that Fortuyn hardly fit the traditional image of a European “far right-winger.” An open homosexual and avid libertarian, Fortuyn wanted to restrict immigration into Holland on the grounds that Muslim immigrants were threatening liberal Dutch traditions of feminism and sexual tolerance. “Right” in some senses, “left” in others, the death of Fortuyn—who was apparently murdered by a (far left?) animal rights activist—left many commentators, the BBC’s Angus Roxburgh among them, feeling “confused and perplexed.” And not only commentators. While attending Fortuyn’s funeral last weekend, Roxburgh met a Dutchman who told him that the Dutch didn’t get it either: “[W]e don’t understand a thing. It’s a complete mystery.”

Yet Fortuyn’s ability to confound political stereotypes is hardly exceptional. Look more closely at some of the parties that the newspapers blithely describe as “far right,” for example, and preconceptions quickly break down. You’re unlikely to find anti-Semitism, for example—and if you’re looking for skinheads and neo-Nazis, you probably won’t find them either.

Nor will you find that many of these groups have much in common with each other. Some years ago, I met some members of the Danish People’s Party, whose name comes up when you click Denmark on the BBC’s interactive “far right” map. In one breath, they denounced other European right-wing parties, called for some restrictions on immigration, and said they opposed Danish membership in the European single currency, all policies that would sit happily in the center of Tony Blair’s Labor Party. The BBC’s Web site also points out that the Danish People’s Party has “pursued newspaper campaigns to expose ‘welfare cheats’ among the immigrant community.” But this is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black: The Evening Standard, a dead center British newspaper that has backed Blair in the past, conducted very similar sorts of campaigns for years without anyone, not even the BBC, appearing to be particularly bothered by it.

More anomalies abound. On the Economist’s “far right” list, for example, is a Polish political party called Law and Justice. This is a party led by a former justice minister and a former member of a mainstream center-right government, whose role model is Rudy Giuliani and who can hardly be anti-immigrant since Poland hasn’t got any. His party qualified for the list on the shaky grounds of “populism”—according to an editor at the Economist I happened to speak to about it. Defending his magazine, the same editor also told me that Law and Justice is in favor of the death penalty. When I pointed out that George Bush is also in favor of the death penalty—and does that make him “far right”?—the editor made his excuses and hung up.

But these are easy cases. It gets even more complicated when you come to Jörg Haider, the Austrian politician, and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Both men do, at times, nod and wink openly at the Nazi and Vichy past. Both also represent some views that would be considered mainstream almost anywhere else. Many Austrians voted for Haider’s Freedom Party, for example, not because Haider sometimes says nice things to Wehrmacht veterans, but because his party advocates straight Thatcherite economics and feels skeptical about the European Union, which no other Austrian parties do. Le Pen is also one of the few politicians in France who openly regrets the loss of the French franc, which has now been replaced by the euro. Those who feel strongly about that issue have no one else to vote for either.

In quite a lot of places, in fact, the “far right” parties have simply become the beneficiaries of discontent with politicians, or discontent with politics, or the place where people go when they feel that no one else represents their views. Descriptions of the far right’s beliefs are also affected by the beliefs of those doing the describing. Yes, to passionate opponents of the death penalty, those who advocate it do seem “extremist.” Yes, to devotees of the European welfare state, free marketeers may seem “extremist,” too.

But perfectly mainstream, perfectly well-adjusted people are also capable of thinking otherwise—which is why we need to assess all this again. In fact—given that “conservative” is now a word commonly used to describe the communist leadership of North Korea and “extreme left” is now a word used to describe the backward-looking ex-communist politicians of Eastern Germany—we might be better off giving up altogether the attempt to use 19th-century political terminology in a post-1989, post-9/11 world.