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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why the French extreme right is making "historic" gains

Le Pen's far right party has made "historic" gains in the first round of the French local elections, amounting to a nation-wide tripling of its votes so far (from 5 % in 2008 to 15%). It is only trailing Sarkozy's UDP party by a couple of percentage points.

Marine Le Pen - outsmarting the
center? (Wikipedia Commons)
This, to me, is but the latest in a series of Europe-wide election results that suggest the following lesson: Attempts by mainstream parties to appropriate anti-immigration rhetoric in a desperate attempt to steal votes from the extreme right, thus preventing it to make electoral gains, are more likely than not to backfire. When established parties move to the right on immigration, this does not seem to reduce support for the xenophobic far right.

Why is this? Using the traditional tools of political science - quantitative or formal - we would expect these kinds of maneuvers to work. When your opponent moves away from the center, you should move toward it and capture the more centrist of your opponent's voters, all things equal. The reason why this logic is flawed, in my view, is that it discounts the power of discourse and narrative framing.

By moving to the right on immigration, centrist parties across Europe have appropriated the rhetoric of the extreme right, making essentialist cultural and identity-based arguments an acceptable and normal part of the daily public discourse. By embracing some of the extreme-right's demands and focusing national attention on the kinds of issues that they "own" politically - immigration, integration, Islamophobia, and xenophobia - centrist European parties have allowed themselves to be lured into playing on the extreme right's home turf. Or rather, they have allowed the extreme right to frame the nation's political discourse, which is a sure way of boosting their respectability and credibility. "After all, haven't they long been raising the issues that the centrist parties only now are addressing?"

Paradoxically, therefore, what seems like a smart move by the centrists amounts to ceding ground to the extreme right instead of taking political territory from it. Not the way to go.

French far right makes serious gains

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