Recent media coverage of European politics has been bizarre. In chorus, the commentariat is warning of the rise of nationalism and the growth of the far right as the main consequence of austerity. Judging by the media you would think the far right Marine Le Pen had won the first round in the French elections, not the rather-more-left -wing-than-usual Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande.
Strange formulations and reality tweaks are necessary to establish this pattern. Almost everyone is saying that Marine Le Pen of the Front National won almost one in five of the votes, when in fact she got 17.9%, nearer to 1 in 6. Hardly anyone mentions the fact the combined hard left vote in the French elections was 12.6%, which is one in eight of the population. Left winger Melenchon’s vote of 11.1%, while less than the wilder poll predictions, still represents a much bigger leap for the Front de Gauche than that achieved by the right wing Front National. In 2002 the Front National won 16% of the vote, actually beating the Socialist Party, coming second and causing a real political panic.
One columnist arguing for a wave of ‘illiberal populism’ spreading across the continent admits in passing the exceptions of Germany and the Iberian peninsular, thus ruling 136 million people in countries at the heart of the austerity debates out of his ‘trend’. Another commentator on Radio 4 corralled ‘successes by the BNP’ in to his narrative when in reality the BNP have been in steep decline in Britain from some years now.
What are they scared of?
Of course there has been a major problem with far right populism in general and Islamophobia in particular for a long time in important parts of Europe. The vote for the Front National is deeply worrying, and tackling the demonisation of Muslim and immigrant communities has to be a very high priority for the left across the continent.
But the idea that the right are making the running in focusing discontent against austerity won’t stand up to scrutiny, can only strengthen the right itself, and risks sending us all off in wrong directions.
Read the financial commentators to get a clearer picture. It is not the rise of the right that has the markets rattled. What the financial world is worried about is that for the first time in France’s Fifth Republic the incumbent was beaten in the first round – by a Socialist Party candidate. That this achievement was accompanied by a very big vote for the hard left and that the Dutch government has collapsed over its austerity plan has only added to the markets’ worries.
Hollande’s victory cannot be shoehorned in to the ‘rise of nationalism’ narrative. Hollande talks sceptically about Europe sometimes, but the market’s concern will be that he at least rhetorically opposes the neoliberalism of Europe’s’ current leadership and that his election would mark the end of the ‘Merkozy’ partnership that has been imposing this vision across the board.
Meanwhile the government in Holland has collapsed, not because the far right in principal oppose austerity, but because Gert Wildeer’s Freedom Party didn’t want to be associated with the level of cuts that are being demanded. Incredibly, the media is virtually ignoring the fact that the anti-austerity, anti-Islamophobia Socialist Party in Holland is up to 26 per cent in the polls and is forecast to become the second largest party in Parliament. Recent trends suggest the better they do, the worst Geert Wilders performs, which is no doubt partly why he’s suddenly kicking up a fuss about austerity. It seems one thing most of the media can’t deal with is large numbers of people drawing left wing conclusions from the crisis.
Voting with their feet
And this leads to the main point. Of course right wing populist and fascist organisations will do everything they can to turn the resentments people feel over austerity against minorities and foreigners. They will try to turn Islamophobia into the new anti Semitism. They are having far too much success in many places. The adoption of neo liberal policies by much of the ‘centre left’ has made the job of the right much easier. But they are not the automatic or even the natural beneficiaries of the current crisis, not least because they support the economics of austerity.
By far the biggest expression of opposition to the knee jerk neoliberalism of the elites have been regular mass demonstration and mass strikes across southern Europe, reaching into France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere. Over 100,000 people took part in anti austerity mass protests in Prague just this weekend
These of course are entirely of the left and have involved tens of millions of people. They reflect the fact that the immediate blame for the cuts is normally and rightly directed against the bankers and the politicians. As the cuts make economic matters worse, expect more such opposition. A new YouGov poll in Britain registers the highest percentage so far believing the cuts are unfair (66%) and the lowest figure believing the cuts are necessary (52%) since they started asking the question.
As most of the centre left parties have accepted the arguments for austerity, this basic anti-cuts consciousness doesn’t always find clear expression at elections. The left needs to deal with this, and the real lessons of the Front de Gauche’s achievement must be that when you draw together real political forces, including sections of the mainstream left, and when you go on the offensive against the neoliberals, you can make a big impact.