At this point, discussing the rise of far-right political parties feels akin to beating a decomposing horse. Comparisons between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, National Front leader Marine le Pen and U.K. Independence Party figurehead Nigel Farage can only be so interesting before we bore out.
Currently, the strategy of existing political parties has been to unload a barrage of insults and criticisms onto such groups in order to damage their credibility: xenophobes, Islamophobes, racists, bigots — the list goes on. However, this name-calling strategy has so far failed in countries like France and the United Kingdom. Labeling these groups with wide generalizations simply propels and paints them as true and authentic forces of opposition. If long-entrenched parties are to succeed against the far right, then they must normalize these groups to mitigate the anti-establishment populism fueling their current rise. Such tactics have found success in history and currently are finding success in the U.K.
Trump’s popularity as a presidential candidate is a fitting example. His abrasive style resulted in oft-warranted accusations of racism, sexism and Islamophobia. Yet in the eyes of his supporters, these insults were out of the norm, and Trump wore them like medals. Trump’s supporters look at the man as if he could fix what they perceive as a broken political system, and the press, Hollywood and Wall Street, which overwhelmingly support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, are perceived as elitist winners of the status quo.
Le Pen in France also thrives in this hostile environment. Traditional and entrenched left and right political groups in France attempted to unite forces in local elections against her and her party beginning in 2015. Yet their strategy of alienation ended up failing.
History holds a better example of how traditional political groups were able to counter and weaken the communist far left. In 1981, François Mitterrand, the candidate of the French Socialist Party, ran a very communist-friendly campaign in which he promised to break from capitalism, and upon being elected, he appointed three communist ministers.
With Machiavellian prescience, Mitterrand told the former American Ambassador Vernon Walters, still very much concerned by the Cold War context, not to worry. He explained that putting communists in the government would give them the illusion of power. As junior members in the government, the communists often had to compromise with the members of the assembly and lost tremendous prestige within their electorate when they worked across the aisle. In 1981, the Communist Party was at more than 15 percent in legislative elections. By the end of Mitterrand’s first term, the figure dropped to less than 7 percent in the 1988 legislative election.
Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, has found a less radical solution of finding a way to mitigate the influence of the far right. Although she was originally against Brexit, she has since embraced some of the themes of UKIP, lambasting the cosmopolitanism of the left while openly styling herself as the champion of those disenfranchised by globalization. Such decisions force UKIP to either work alongside the establishment it originally sought to work against or remain outside the political system without policy power.
If forced to work alongside moderate and entrenched political parties, the far right will find it incredibly difficult to thrive, just as communist parties struggled to maintain support once they entered parliamentary systems. While many would find it difficult to stomach the idea of listening to these parties’ ideas respectfully and integrating them into given political systems, the long-term outcome will benefit society as a whole, something we would all appreciate given the climate of national and international politics.
Francois Valentin is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Fault Lines appears every other Friday.
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