In the lead-up to the first round of France’s presidential elections, two candidates from outside the mainstream are leading in a tightening contest: Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent on a center-left platform, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party. The two are locked in a dead heat for first and second place with 23–24 percent support each, depending on the poll. In a surprise surge, the communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon is quickly rising to third place.
Although many observers have focused on the rise of far-right politics in Europe, the real story of the French presidential race, and of European politics more broadly, is the failure of centrists to effectively respond to the challenge from either extreme. Center-right parties, including France’s Républicains, are taking the biggest hit as the far right sweeps up conservative voters. The party’s response seems to be if you can’t beat them, join them. For example, François Fillon, the center-right presidential candidate, has said that France should ignore the Schengen Agreement and reinstate “real borders” to control immigration—a longtime talking point for the anti-EU Le Pen. The approach may work in the short term, but our research suggests that in the long term it is doomed to fail.
Looking at elections in all European countries since 1990, I and a co-author found that when the line between the center right and the far right blurs, the centrists inadvertently give more credence to ideas that were once considered too extreme. As those ideas enter the mainstream, voters who once found the far-right agenda unsavory, may start to think otherwise. (After all, if establishment leaders are saying it, it must be acceptable). Over time, the adaptation strategy only emboldens the far right.
In France, the Républicains are playing with fire. François Fillon, former Républicain prime minister and once the dominant front-runner, embraced the Front National’s talking points, calling for strict immigration controls, such as refugee quotas and border security. Echoing Le Pen at a campaign rally in January, Fillon linked refugees with terrorism, saying that “immigration must be firmly controlled” to mitigate the threat from “Islamic totalitarianism.” Mimicking Le Pen in a direct attack on the European Union, Fillon went on to say that France would “re-establish lasting controls over its borders” if the European Union was unwilling or unable to do so.
At the same time as the Républicains have moved further to the right, Le Pen has actively moved her party closer to the center by shedding the anti-Semitism and openly racist rhetoric of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, former head of the party. To solidify Front National’s more inclusive public image, in 2015 Marine Le Pen expelled her father from the party he founded. The convergence between the Républicains and the Front National party on issues of immigration, identity, and law and order has further legitimized Le Pen to some previously skeptical voters, according to Benjamin Haddad, research fellow at the Hudson Institute and a supporter of Macron, the pro-European candidate. “No one wants the copy when you can have the original,” he said, referring to the center right’s co-optation of Le Pen’s agenda.
As the Républicains have moved further to the right, Le Pen has doubled down on an anti-EU agenda. If elected, she has promised to immediately reinstate national borders, exit the EU via a referendum, stop all immigration, and put an end to the “Islamization” of Europe.
Center-right parties are likely pursuing a strategy that will inevitably backfire, although it has temporarily worked in some recent elections, including last month’s Dutch elections. There, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right party won handsomely over Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom. The elections were celebrated as a blow to the far right’s momentum. To win, however, Rutte, a social liberal, took out anti-immigrant newspaper ads telling immigrants to “act normal or leave” and, in a television appearance, used a slur against Turks, essentially parroting Wilders’ talking points. The successful gambit may send the wrong lesson to other European center-right parties.
Over the last 25 years, pandering to the far right has not worked. This is especially true when a far-right party is seen as having ownership of a specific policy position. One key policy position that the far right has owned is euroscepticism, the rejection of EU institutions in favor of increased national sovereignty and border controls. This issue, perhaps more than any other, has become a core rallying call for far-right parties, from France’s Front National to Hungary’s Jobbik. Using data on party positions, we examined what happens when center-right parties move closer to the anti-EU agenda of the far right in 92 national parliamentary elections in 27 European countries, particularly when the far right has issue dominance. Our modeling revealed that when a center-right party became more eurosceptic but the far right doubled down on its anti-EU discourse, the far right gained at the polls. This finding holds true regardless of the economic situation or the number of immigrants in a country.
If the “you can’t beat them, join them” approach helps the far right, then what should centrist parties do to deter their rise? For the center right, the first step is to stop calibrating policies based on the far right’s agenda. The far right is unlikely to go away anytime soon—its resurgence reflects real anxieties and fears among Europeans about security, economic opportunities, and the future of their communities. But, at the same time, the growing appeal of nationalist, antiestablishment, and antiglobalist ideas is a symptom of a broader political reality in Europe. The rise of the far right, and of the far left for that matter, is just as much about the center right’s haphazard response to real problems and the failure of the center left to deliver a compelling, progressive vision for the future.
In most European countries, center-left parties have become parties of technocrats, focused on defending the social democratic achievements of the past. But the post–World War II era of “welfare capitalism,” which saw the growth of social programs and universal rights, is over because the economic prosperity needed to sustain welfare state expansion has given way to stagnation and austerity. Centrist parties, both left and right, have been forced to implement unpopular austerity measures and, in the case of countries such as Greece that were hardest hit by Europe’s economic downturn, that austerity pill was prescribed by the EU. In the new age of austerity, insecurity, and economic stagnation, voters are looking elsewhere for compelling answers to today’s problems. The working class, once the traditional constituency of Europe’s center-left parties, has been moving toward the far right in growing numbers since the 1980s, cutting into the center left’s support base.
The effect of this trend is palpable: in France, Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, is running in fifth place, trailing the corruption-stricken Fillon. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the Labor Party received only six percent of the vote in the March elections, losing 29 seats in the parliament.
Still, not all is bleak for European centrists. For center-left parties, the rise of the far right and the strategic fumbling of the center right, could be an opportunity to win back their constituencies. For center-right parties, the challenge from the far right is a chance to recalibrate their policy agenda around core principles of fostering economic growth and stability within a strong Europe. One candidate in the French race offers a reason for hope. Macron, the center-left independent, is running a campaign rooted in pro-European principles, liberal democratic values, and an open economy. Although he has certainly benefited from Fillon’s scandal-plagued candidacy, Macron is popular because he is not seen as a politician or technocrat but as a new face emerging from outside the political establishment. "Macron has understood that you can't make a technocratic cost/benefit appeal to voters,” said Haddad, who plans to vote for him in the elections. “You can't be shy in defending Europe and open societies.” Indeed, Macron’s traction as a pro-European candidate signals that frustrated voters are drawn to new ideas, new faces, and a positive narrative, even if that agenda is a repackaging of old pro-EU policies. The center right across the world should not give in to the far right, and the center left must stand firm on progressive principles that channel voters’ anxieties rather than feed them.