Congratulations are due to the new president of France: Francois Hollande finished off Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday with a few percentage points to spare. Congratulations of another sort are due to Syriza, also known as the Coalition of the Radical Left, a party that made major gains in Sunday’s Greek parliamentary elections, as well as Golden Dawn, a party whose symbol looks like a swastika and whose candidates earned enough votes to enter the Greek parliament for the very first time. Further congratulations perhaps ought to be sent to the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose decision to withdraw the support of his anti-Europe, anti-immigration party from the ruling coalition brought down the Dutch government a few days ago.
Another week, another European government falls by the wayside—and in each recent case the center was defeated by the extremes, or by what used to be the extremes before they crept into the mainstream. The Greek center-left and the Greek center-right were pummeled by outliers on both sides of the political spectrum. In the Netherlands, the machinations of an upstart party forced the centrists out of power too.
In France, the story is subtler but still similar: In fact, both candidates spent the latter part of the campaign pandering to the far reaches of their respective parties. Hollande, a socialist, had to win the 11 percent of French voters who cast their first-round ballots for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Trotskyite who wants to impose tax rates of 100 percent on high earners—a policy that made Hollande’s 75 percent proposed tax look reasonable. Sarkozy, in the center-right, had to compete with Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, who won 18 percent in the first round. Le Pen is a little vague about what she actually wants, but Sarkozy tried to attract her supporters by promising, among other things, to impose a test of “French values” on any foreigner who wants to live in France. It was an intriguing thought—perhaps would-be French citizens should be required to undergo a blind tasting, to see if they can tell the difference between California chardonnay and the real thing? Alas, that idea didn’t appeal.
I once promised never to use the term “far right” to describe any European political party because these parties differ so much from country to country and because they often want such different things. “Far left” is usually a more useful term, since far-left parties are usually Marxist or Maoist, so actually share some political views. But as I look across Europe I don’t know what to call the wave of discontent, as most of the parties on the outlying right or left have more in common with one another right now than they do with anyone in the center. Generally speaking they are anti-European, anti-globalization, and anti-immigration. Their leaders, in the words of a French friend, want to “withdraw from the world.” They don’t like their multiethnic capital cities or their open borders, and they don’t care for multinational companies or multilateral institutions.
Above all, they are anti-austerity: They hate the budget cuts that they believe were imposed on their national governments by outsiders in the international bond market and by their own membership in the euro currency zone. Never mind that those same national governments had created the need for austerity by overspending and overborrowing, or in some cases—most notably Greece—by funding vast, unaffordable and corrupt state bureaucracies over many decades. And never mind that many of them had begged to be part of the euro zone—nobody was forced to join—or that they benefited for many years from being members.
Often, they are also anti-American or at least anti-Western-alliance. Melenchon wants France to leave NATO and cozy up to the Chinese Communist Party instead. Syriza wants Greece to move closer to Russia. And, yes, they share their dislike of liberal democracy and liberal capitalism with an earlier generation of Europeans. The far left and far right of the 1930s also dreamt of alternatives to the bland and bankrupt political center and in some cases tried to implement them.
I don’t foresee a new rise of fascism, and I’m not predicting the return of Stalinism, but should they get their way, the parties challenging the European center today would carry out a different kind of revolution. They would end the European Union, end the NATO alliance and drop out—or try to drop out—of the global economic order. They would turn back the clock, if they could, to a time when national governments really made decisions all by themselves—a charming fantasy that could end in various forms of disaster. It still sounds impossible—but just because something can’t work doesn’t mean someone, someday, won’t try it.