How Europe's far right divided over anti-migrant message as it seeks EU election gains

Nationalists attack Islam and asylum but split between French and German fringes derails campaign

Europe's far right is using migration to mobilise its base for an election in which 27 countries are going to the polls. The National
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Europe is bracing for far-right parties to make gains at an EU election this week, where their key message of stopping migration could shape the bloc's stance towards the Middle East and North Africa.

But a split between French and German far-right parties has derailed their campaign in its final stages and exposed differences in how they sell their ideas on migration and protectionism.

France's National Rally is aiming to appeal to a broad audience while Italy’s anti-migrant Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has forged surprisingly warm relations with EU colleagues.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is meanwhile in turmoil after a Nazi gaffe by its top candidate while Spain's Vox develops ties with populists around the globe.

With French President Emmanuel Macron warning of an “ill wind” of far-right sentiment, EU chiefs have sought to contain asylum fears by striking agreements with Turkey, Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon that they bill as broad economic pacts but are seen widely as attempts to keep migrants on the other side of the sea.

“The priority for Europe in the Middle East is migration, migration, migration,” Koert Debeuf, a distinguished adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance, told The National. “The rest, they don’t give a damn.”

Voters are going go to the polls from Thursday to Sunday to elect a 705-member pan-European Parliament that has relatively little power but can influence appointments and policy.

The vote also gives far-right parties a chance to test the waters for national elections that are increasingly giving them seats at coalition tables, such as recently in the Netherlands and Sweden.

Foreign affairs rank relatively low among voters’ concerns, with only 12 per cent of French people saying the Israel-Gaza war will influence their vote, for example.

Some parties have seized on the ugly fallout of the war to raise alarms about immigration from Muslim countries. Dutch anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders has spoken of “Jew-haters with sticks and beards”.

“The most important topic for this political family is immigration and specifically from outside Europe,” far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus said.

Tactics differ, however, with the hard-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group putting forward no joint manifesto for this week's election.

French caution

The leading French far-right party, Marine Le Pen's National Rally, is on a quest for respectability in French society.

As it becomes increasingly popular – currently first in the polls at 31 per cent – the National Rally has been careful to tone down racist language that used to be common among party officials at the time of its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Lead candidate Jordan Bardella does not directly target France’s large immigrant population from North and West Africa when discussing his views on why he believes migration is an existential threat to France.

But he has also been prompt to link immigration to security concerns and often cites last summer’s riots that took place in impoverished suburbs with a large migrant population.

Such precautions are viewed as a way of leaving the door open to politicians such as Malika Sorel, second on Mr Bardella’s list, and born in France of Algerian parents.

She is also a fierce critic of migrants who are perceived as not assimilating well enough into French society in what critics describe as a weaponisation of the French principle of secularism, or “laicite”.

“For the National Rally, you can be Muslim and French as long as you assimilate,” said Mr Camus.

A smaller far-right group headed by politician Eric Zemmour, Reconquete, currently at 8 per cent in voting intention figures, asserts that being Muslim and French is incompatible.

Mr Camus said Ms Le Pen, if one day handed executive powers, could go down a similar path to Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, elected Prime Minister in 2022 after a campaign won partly on anti-immigration sentiment.

She has since backtracked in part and last year paved the way to granting working rights to about 450,000 migrants.

Mr Bardella has struck a similar position to French President Emmanuel Macron on the Gaza war. He supports a two-state solution but believes it is unhelpful at this point, despite recent recognition of Palestine by Ireland, Spain and Norway.

“It’s not very different from the President’s position, who has kept things vague” on recognition, said Mr Camus.

While the motivations for stating this stance may be different – with some analysts highlighting the far-right’s hostility to Islam, and the perception among many European leaders of shared liberal and democratic values with Israel – the result is similar.

Yet unease among the French-Jewish community at establishing full relations with the National Rally remains due to its anti-Semitic past and despite its recent efforts to change this perception. “Large Jewish organisations in France and the Israeli embassy don’t want to normalise at this stage,” said Mr Camus.

German scandal

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has likewise professed pro-Israel views, but its habit of evoking the Nazi era leaves a different taste and it was recently kicked out of the ID group in Europe after its lead candidate was caught up in scandal.

A remark by Maximilian Krah about supposed law-abiding members of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary central to the Holocaust, was the final straw for Ms Pen’s National Rally party in France and its allies in Italy and the EU.

The AfD’s woes – also including spying claims against a Krah aide and a police raid on number-two candidate Petr Bystron – mean its campaign is “pretty much collapsing”, said Hans-Jakob Schindler of the Counter Extremism Project.

The usual far-right strategy is to “point out the inefficiencies of the system, link that to what they call an uncontrolled immigration problem, and essentially undermine trust in the established institutions”, he told The National.

“That would have worked, but unfortunately [candidate] number one and number two have been suspended, so they’re not talking much about anything at this point.”

The AfD devotes the second chapter of its manifesto to calling fundamentalist Islam a “danger to Europe” and saying a “romanticised idea of migration” ignores anti-Semitism spread by Muslims.

“Islam does not belong in Germany,” cries one AfD poster that also says a majority of Germans “do not want refugees from Islamic countries”, citing a poll showing 52 per cent agree.

The party had been enjoying record highs in the polls but faced a huge backlash after party members were caught taking part in a secret meeting on “remigration” of foreigners.

The talks at a hotel near Berlin were compared to the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders planned the Holocaust, and France’s National Rally has distanced itself from the AfD.

Mr Krah’s SS gaffe was the latest in a long line of AfD remarks seen as too close to the Nazi bone, with Mr Schindler describing the party’s support for Israel as no more than a way of deflecting anti-Semitism claims.

Austria’s Freedom Party (FPOe) is running on a slogan of “stop the EU madness”, with key themes being “zero tolerance” for illegal migrants and a halt to all asylum claims from outside Europe.

Lead candidate Harald Vilimsky has appeared on television to warn of an “invasion of young men from Arabia and Africa” and says asylum seekers should not be allowed cash, only vouchers.

The FPOe draws inspiration from a new Dutch government, formed after Geert Wilders won an election last year, which wants to opt out of an EU burden-sharing deal on asylum.

The Sweden Democrats, part of a power-sharing deal in Stockholm since 2022, warn in their election material of “gangs of thieves” crossing Europe's borders while “weapons flow and Islamism grows strong”.

It says terrorist acts are “encouraged by radical imams who are allowed to preach their reprehensible terrorist propaganda in mosques around Europe”.

Then there is Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU's most right-wing and anti-migrant leader, who is using government channels to campaign for an anti-migration vote across Europe.

Vowing that “Hungary will never surrender to migration madness”, he is lobbying hard against the EU asylum deal just as his country prepares to assume the EU's rotating presidency from July.

If voters put the wind in his sails – and if that leaves EU institutions in limbo – it will be an emboldening moment for far-right parties across Europe.

A version of this article was first published on May 31

Updated: June 05, 2024, 5:27 PM