A far-right falling out in Europe

Dr Oliver Hartwich
28 May, 2024

As the European Parliament elections loom next month, a political earthquake is reshaping the landscape of the continent’s far-right. In a stunning move, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) party has abruptly severed ties with its long-time German ally, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). RN has ejected the AfD from their shared Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament.

The trigger for this dramatic breakup? A string of controversies surrounding the AfD’s lead candidate, Maximilian Krah. Krah had ‘relativised’ the crimes of the Nazi SS, and he has alleged ties to Chinese and Russian influence operations. One of his staffers even got arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

Le Pen has spent years trying to rebrand her party as a more palatable “national conservative” force and distance it from the overt racism and anti-Semitism of her father’s Front National. In light of Marine Le Pen’s project to reform the image of her party, Krah’s antics were a bridge too far. If she was willing even to break with her father, why would she tolerate a provincial political amateur like Krah?

On the surface, the RN-AfD divorce reflects Le Pen’s ruthless political calculation in the run-up to the June European elections and France’s 2027 presidential contest. By cutting the AfD loose, she aims to insulate herself from the German party’s increasingly toxic reputation and present herself as a credible national leader in the mold of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Ironically, the AfD has taken the opposite path. Having started off as a respectable, fiscally conservative party led by a bunch of academics and businesspeople, it has morphed into a far-right extremist movement over the last decade.

The RN is surging in French polls and is poised to win around a third of the national vote in the European election. Le Pen clearly believes she has more to gain by moving towards the mainstream than by clinging to an erratic and scandal plagued AfD.

The split also underscores deeper fault lines and tensions that have long lurked beneath the surface of Europe’s nationalist and populist movements. For all their shared antipathy towards the EU, immigration and Islam, far-right parties like the RN and AfD are often sharply divided on key issues like relations with Russia, the war in Ukraine, and how to engage with China.

They are also driven by competing national interests and the often-outsized egos of their leaders, reluctant to play second fiddle to their foreign counterparts.

These divisions have been on stark display in the European Parliament. Far-right parties are currently scattered across three separate factions: Meloni’s national-conservative European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group; the more stridently Eurosceptic ID group anchored by the RN and Italy’s Lega; and the unaffiliated MEPs led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. Despite holding similar views on many issues, the three groups have struggled to coordinate their positions, let alone vote as a unified bloc.

The impact of the RN-AfD rupture on this fractured landscape remains to be seen. On one hand, the loss of the AfD’s seats could significantly weaken the ID group. It was poised to become the third-largest force in the next European Parliament thanks in part to the AfD’s strong early polling.

On the other hand, some analysts speculate that the AfD’s ousting could pave the way for a broader realignment on the far right. The RN may seek to merge with the ECR to form a consolidated nationalist bloc – but without the baggage of the AfD’s extremism. Such an alliance, if it materialised, would mark a major shift in the balance of power within the European Parliament. It could give far-right parties significant clout in shaping EU policy on issues like migration, the budget, and rule of law issues in EU member states.

However, there are large obstacles to such a merger. Many ECR parties, including Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, have been wary of associating too closely with the RN and other ID members, fearing it could taint their own efforts to present a more respectable image. There are also key policy differences between the two factions, particularly on Russia, which could prove difficult to bridge.

Even within the RN, there are signs of unease over the party’s new direction. Some long-time members and activists worry that Le Pen’s quest for mainstream respectability risks diluting the party’s ideological purity and alienating its core far-right base. The recent defection of several RN officials to Éric Zemmour’s more extreme Reconquête party underscores the challenge Le Pen faces in managing her party’s internal tensions.

Ultimately, the splintering of the Franco-German far-right axis may say more about the RN’s domestic ambitions than it does about the broader fortunes of Europe’s nationalist parties. By cutting the AfD loose and cosying up to more moderate allies like Meloni, Le Pen is betting that she can bolster her credentials as a sober stateswoman. She is seeking to broaden her appeal among French voters ahead of the 2027 presidential race – probably her final chance of moving into the Élysée Palace.

Whether that gamble pays off remains to be seen. Le Pen has a long history of underperforming in second-round runoffs. Many voters remain deeply sceptical of her party’s hardline positions on immigration, Islam and the EU. Her rivals will undoubtedly seek to use the RN’s past ties to the AfD and other extremist groups to portray Le Pen as a dangerous radical, even as she tries to pivot towards the centre.

Still, there is no denying that Le Pen has come a long way from the political wilderness she inhabited just a few short years ago – and that was her father’s legacy. By seizing on voters’ anger about crime, the cost of living and perceived threats to French identity, she has established the RN as a major force in French politics and shifted the national debate sharply to the right. Especially since Macron cannot run again after two terms in office, Le Pen will be a serious contender in 2027.

The future of the AfD, meanwhile, looks increasingly bleak. It is troubled by internal power struggles, dogged by allegations of ties to foreign powers, and haemorrhaging support in the polls. Its ejection from the ID group relegates it to pariah status, even within the European far right. That is quite an achievement.

More broadly, the RN-AfD divorce underscores the enduring challenges facing far-right parties as they navigate the tension between ideological purity and electoral viability.

Le Pen’s pursuit of respectability may offer a template for other nationalist leaders seeking to broaden their appeal. But it also carries the risk of losing die-hard supporters to even more unpalatable parties while blurring the lines between the far right and the mainstream conservative camp.

As the European Parliament elections draw near and the continent’s populist and Eurosceptic forces jockey for position, the future of the European far right is uncertain.

Not long ago, many observers expected the rise in support for far-right parties to yield a very different European Parliament after the forthcoming election. But the infighting among them, coupled with a string of scandals, means that the next European Parliament might not be radically different from the current one.

To read the full article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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