After helping Donald Trump break American politics, Steve Bannon sought to do the same in Europe. It didn’t work out the way he planned.
Steve Bannon is a busy man. A man on a mission — a bigoted farce, under the guise of a grand and illustrious quest informed by a noble cause: nothing less than the survival of Western civilization. Its survival, or so Bannon believes, starts with the defense of Europe against the threat of a new age of barbarism brought about by the ever-increasing presence and visibility of militant Muslim minorities, abetted if not actively promoted by cosmopolitan political and intellectual elites. This is why Bannon, the self-appointed tribune of the “little guy,” has made Europe his field of action, strategizing, spreading the message, organizing the resistance.
Bannon was particularly busy in the run-up to this year’s European election. After all, Bannon has made it his avowed goal to “undermine, and ultimately paralyze,” the process of European integration. Strategically this has meant coaxing all Euro-critical, sovereignist and right-wing populist parties to forge a united front in the European parliament strong enough to have a real impact on parliamentary negotiations. In Bannon’s view, times had never been as propitious for the radical right as in 2019 to attain that “critical mass” necessary to render any further move toward greater integration “dead.” In fact, Bannon predicted that after the election, every day in Brussels (which he once characterized as the “beating heart of the globalist project”) would resemble “Stalingrad.”
Things didn’t pan out exactly the way Bannon had envisaged. To be sure, the radical populist right had a good run, but far less spectacular than expected. European elections are secondary elections, which allow voters to express their political discontent and displeasure with relative impunity. The results should be measured against the results of national elections rather than the outcome of previous European elections.
Against this backdrop, the results of the radical populist right were mediocre, far from the electoral tsunami Bannon had hoped for. In a number of West European countries, such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Spain and Sweden, the radical right either barely equalized or fell considerably short of the results of recent national elections. In Denmark, it experienced a veritable electoral Berezina, reconfirmed a few weeks later in national elections. They did very well in the UK (hardly surprising given the travails of Brexit), Italy, France, the Flemish part of Belgium and in the Netherlands – yet not necessarily in accordance with Bannon’s script.
In France, Marine Le Pen made a spectacular comeback, pulling ahead of Macron’s political formation – a victory of highly symbolic value. In Italy, Salvini’s Lega confirmed its newly-found position as the country’s leading party, ahead of its coalition partner (the Five Star Movement) in the national government. In the Flemish part of Belgium, the Vlaams Belang sextupled its previous score – by far the most dramatic result of these elections. And in the Netherlands, a relatively new formation far surpassed the “established” populist radical right (i.e., Geert Wilders’ one-person anti-Islam show).
These results don’t bode well for the kind of “critical mass” Bannon had deemed indispensable for his let’s-destroy-the-EU project. The radical right had attempted for decades to establish their own group in the European parliament. Neither of the attempts proved durable; nor did they manage to rally all radical right-wing populist formations around a common project. This time, however, things were supposed to be different. A few days before the election, Matteo Salvini called the leaders of Europe’s “nationalist parties” to Milan for a mass rally intended to show the radical right’s cohesion, strength, and appeal. The event was supposed to be a “historical day;” it turned out to be a flop, with fewer than a fifth of the expected 100,000 supporters bothering to show up.
Given the political turmoil in Austria, provoked by revelations of a meeting between Heinz-Christian Strache — the powerful leader of the FPÖ and one of the pillars of the transnational radical right-wing populist alliance – and the fake niece of a Russian oligarch, the lackluster public response to the event was perhaps not entirely surprising. The scandal evoked the specter of outside interference and manipulation, in addition to corruption, which had plagued the radical right for years. It also raised questions about Steve Bannon’s influence on the politics of the radical right. In fact, it was only a week that several conservative members of the French parliament had called for a formal investigation of whether or not Marine Le Pen’s secret meetings with Bannon constituted “collusion with a foreign power.”
Marine Is Back
As it turned out, Marine Le Pen scored an impressive victory — but lost important allies. With Strache disgraced and politically dead and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands losing all of its seats (4), the core axis of the envisioned parliamentary alliance was severely weakened. And with the renewed sense that foreign powers were seeking to use the radical right to undermine and weaken European unity, any thought of promoting exiting the European Union was off the table — and this independently of the negative impact the Brexit disaster has had on public opinion. Under these circumstances, for the radical populist right, the first order of business in the new European Parliament will be to regroup and formulate a new project rather than putting a nail into the process of European integration.
The organizational and programmatic regroupment will to a considerable extent depend on Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national. Largely written off after her disastrous performance in the televised debate with Emmanuel Macron between the two rounds of the 2017 presidential election, Marine Le Pen has come back with a vengeance. With the conservative right in shambles, and Macron having largely squandered his political capital, the radical right is in an excellent position to pick up the pieces, particularly given the country’s morose state of mind. In late 2018, more than 80 percent of respondents thought the country was going in the wrong direction. A few months later, a major business magazine charged that the French were “the world champions in pessimism” fed by anxiety with regard to the future (particularly with respect to work) and a profound nostalgia for past times of glory and prosperity.
Nationalist nostalgia has increasingly come to be recognized as a major driver behind support for contemporary radical right-wing populism. Marine Le Pen was among the first to recognize its mobilizing potential, increasingly evoking the early postwar period (what the French refer to as les trente glorieuses) with its rapid economic growth, full employment and a strong state as well as major strong leaders, such as the Socialist Jean Jaurès and, of course, de Gaulle. Under these circumstances, Marine Le Pen’s position as the rallying point for the European radical right might seem a foregone conclusion.
Yet the revival of the radical right (Vlaams Belang, VB) in Flanders, as well as the rise of a new force on the radical right in the Netherlands (Forum for Democracy), suggest that things might pan out differently. Both parties are headed by young, dynamic, and telegenic leaders (Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum, has a PhD in law, plays the piano, and cultivates an image similar to the late Pim Fortuyn). Both, following the lead of Marine Le Pen, have made an effort to get out of the margins of the political arena, by presenting themselves as potential coalition partners, without, however, abandoning core positions of the radical right.
For Marine Le Pen, the success of this new generation of radical right-wing populist leaders represents a chance; after all, the Flemish radical right has traditionally been closely aligned with its French counterpart. But it might also turn into a major political headache – caused by Marion Maréchal, Marine’s 29-year-old niece. Known for her socially conservative positions, Marion Maréchal was the youngest ever elected deputy before temporarily abandoning the political arena to devote more time to her daughter. But now she is back with a bang, and with a mission, namely to unite the right behind a new banner. Unencumbered by the burden of the Le Pen name (which she dropped from her double name in 2017), Marion Maréchal is more likely to succeed than her aunt. At least, this is what surveys have suggested.
For now, Marine Le Pen is firmly in charge of her party. Whether or not this will continue to be the case in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election is a different question. Marion Maréchal’s recent return to the limelight of French politics is bound to have significant consequences for the radical populist right both in France and beyond. Steven Bannon once called her a “rising star” with a “great future.” Both share a catholic background, an affinity to Charles Maurass, the theorist of “integral nationalism, and, last but not least, a visceral rejection of Islam. Whether or not this is enough for Bannon to regain lost terrain is an open question. I, personally doubt it. Neither Marine Le Pen nor Marion Maréchal are the pendant to Donald Trump. The need for the self-absorbed and full-of-himself (…) whisperer in chief is over – at least on this side of the Atlantic.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich. See his profile here.
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