The Extreme Right in Europe: Fascist or Mainstream?

About Jérôme Jamin

Parties of the extreme Right now have a role in the governments and/or the parliaments of several European countries, including Flanders (northern Belgium1), France, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. They now have a share in political power in these countries, directly or indirectly, locally or nationally, alone or in coalitions. What was widely feared—for example, vis-à-vis the Front National in France2—has to a significant extent become the reality. And as power went from democratic hands to these new parties, the words used to describe these parties were changed: the neo-Nazis became “parties with extremist trends”; the fascists became the radical Right or national Right.

As yesterday’s fascists have entered government, such word-changes have made it increasingly difficult to identify the extreme right in contemporary Europe. Can one still apply the term fascist to a xenophobic party like the Lega Nord3 now that it has been in power (with Forza Italia led by Silvio Berlusconi) for many years? Can one view France’s Front National as a mere relic of Pétainism when it made it into the second round of the presidential election (May 2002) and when cities such as Toulon, Orange, Marignane and Vitrolles have had mayors from the FN? In what terms is it possible to stigmatize the Vlaams Blok4 in northern Belgium—a direct offshoot of pro-Nazi collaboration during World War II—when this party is one of the most powerful in Flanders? It is very hard to use the old words to characterize those parties in power today. It was a lot easier yesterday when they were small and noisy racist parties instead of the big powerful actors they have now become.

Words and Actions

To address this concern, we need to focus on how these parties have acted once they got into office. Let us look more closely at the cases of Austria, France, and Belgium.

Jörg Haider and his Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ)5 often showed their fascination for Nazism and its xenophobic views of politics. Among many examples, he said that the Waffen SS “were part of the Wehrmacht, and therefore deserve honor and respect like other armies.”6 Speaking about the concentration camp of Mauthausen, Haider called it “a simple punitive camp.” Regarding migrants and foreigners, he has been very clear: “Africans in Austria are drug dealers who try to seduce our youth. We have the Polish who steal cars, the ex-Yugoslavs who are experts in robbery, the Turks who are responsible for the heroin traffic, the Russians who specialize in the black market and in violent assaults.” Regarding Slovenians from Carpathia (Haider’s stronghold), the FPÖ leader said that they “have sex with dogs and should not be surprised to wake up with fleas.”

In 1999, with a huge propaganda campaign against migrants, against elites and against the European Union, the FPÖ got 26.9% in the national election. The outcome was a coalition between the FPÖ and the ÖVP (the conservative party), a coalition which has been criticized by most of the European governments. Following what would come to be known as the “Haider affair,” the European Union decided to vote sanctions against Austria to protest its acceptance of a fascist party in power.

After a few months of embargo against Austria, the European Union decided to bring in a special commission to evaluate the policies of the FPÖ/ÖVP coalition in order to see if migrants and minorities were suffering under this new xenophobic government. The conclusions of the report are most interesting. It said that although the FPÖ was a “populist party with extremist trends that promote xenophobic speech,”7 it was impossible to prove a difference between Austria and other countries in their treatment of foreigners. More precisely, the report said, “in some domains, and notably regarding the rights of the national minorities, the Austrian standard could be considered higher than standards in other nations within the European Union.”8 The Haider affair gave a clear message to the progressive community. The immediate policies implemented by rightwing parties do not necessarily give an accurate indication of their agenda.

The French example illustrates this further. In June 1995, after local elections, the Front National had mayors in office in three cities: Jean-Marie Le Chevallier in Toulon (pop. 175,000), Daniel Simonpieri in Marignane (32,000) and Jacques Bompart in Orange (28,000). Two years later, Catherine Mégret took office in Vitrolles (45,000). Since the beginning of the ’80s, the leader and founder of the FN had many opportunities to show his nostalgia for Pétain and his xenophobic view of France and Europe. Talking about race, Jean-Marie Le Pen said in August 1996: “I believe there is inequality between races. That is obvious. History shows it. Races do not have the same ability in terms of evolution.”9 One month later, he added that during the Olympic games he saw “an obvious inequality between black race and white race,” suggesting that while black people excelled in sports, they were inferior in intelligence. Regarding the Holocaust, Le Pen said in September 1987 that while he didn’t deny the existence of gas chambers, he personally did not see any of them, he wondered about it, and anyway “it was a detail of the history of the second World War.” This was said at a time when several “historians” were trying to raise the idea that gas chambers did not exist. In this way, Le Pen was supporting the works of these negationist10 “historians.” Recently, in 2004, the FN’s number-two man Bruno Gollnish went in the same direction when he said: “I did not question the existence of concentration camps… I question the numbers of victims. Historians should debate it.” This year again, Le Pen came back with the idea that “the German occupation [of France] was not especially inhuman”11 and that we have been too strict about Nazi treatment of the French population during World War II.

The immediate policies implemented by right-wing parties do not necessarily give an accurate indication of their agenda.

Once the Front National got enough votes to elect four mayors, the progressive community focused attention on how Toulon, Marignane, Orange (and two years later Vitrolles) were being governed. It was about time to see how old words like fascism and Nazism could still make sense in analyzing the extreme right in power. The first year brought many scandalous decisions. Among other examples, we can mention the withdrawal of many “progressive books” from public libraries in those cities and the purchase of literature very favorable to the Front National and Le Pen—a leader who eventually hoped to see his own hagiographies on the shelves. Let’s also mention the proposal by Catherine Mégret to offer a grant for any “French white mother” in Vitrolles who would have a baby and register it.12 Finally, let’s mention the money the mayors put into new uniforms for the police when they stopped financing a “bunch of leftist” associations viewed as enemies of the FN. But although many of these early measures reflected the real nature of the Front National, several years in office have not helped the progressive community to demonstrate dangerous links between words and acts, between the FN and a fascist threat. In brief, the FN could withdraw books from libraries and support the police, but they were not starting to set up an authoritarian state in France, nor did they hold a book-burning rally.

A third example deserves our attention. The separatist nationalist Vlaams Blok (VB, Flemish Bloc) has been growing continuously since 1978 and, according to recent opinion polls, has now become the leading party in Flanders. Like the Front National in France, the VB has had many opportunities to reveal links with (and nostalgia for) Nazism and the collaboration. The old founder of the Vlaams Blok was a member of the Vlaams National Verbond, a fascist group that collaborated with the Nazis. And Philip Dewinter, one of the leading figures of the Blok, never misses an occasion to show his racist views. In 1990, he said that he and his fellows were “for a total amnesty regarding acts of collaboration during the war.”13 Speaking about migrants and foreigners, Dewinter said in 1991, “Only prostitutes leave their doors open. We don’t want to transform Flanders into a public brothel open to any foreigners from Africa or Asia.”14 The same year, after having been accused of racism, Dewinter had this interesting reply: “If people say we are racist because we apply the principle ‘Our people first’ and give priority to it, then we consider racism an honorable title!”15

The Vlaams Blok is today one the most powerful extremist parties in Europe. But although the VB is, according to surveys, the number one party in northern Belgium, it never got the opportunity to enter a coalition in any government because of the principle of the cordon sanitaire (quarantine). Launched in 1989 by parties of the Left, the cordon sanitaire has led to a tacit agreement among “democratic” parties to avoid any coalition with the Vlaams Blok. Through personal commitment of deputies or collective commitment from parties, the VB has been kept out of all posts and positions of power in Belgium. The party has hundreds of deputies at all levels, but none of them could show how they would act if they held executive office.

The cordon sanitaire has given the VB, like the Austrian FPÖ and the French Front National, the appearance of a democratic party; its members have been in public councils for twenty years without being able to implement a fascist program. Once again, the progressive community had to deal with an obvious contradiction between old, deep and strong words (fascism, Nazism, etc.) and daily life with a party which, whatever its rhetoric, lacked the opportunity to differentiate itself in practical terms from others. Even worse, it had to deal with a democracy that institutes a quarantine against an elected party to keep it out of power. Does it still deserve to be called a democracy?

The Extreme Right and the Elections

Focusing on the words of the extreme right might be useful for showing its historical links with the fascism of the 1930s, or to highlight the racist views of some of its leaders. But this understanding is not enough to convince the electorate that the extreme right is a threat to democracy and to democratic values. What accounts for this difficulty?

In the first place, like the FN and the FPÖ, extremist leaders from all over Europe learned through the years how to use democratic rhetoric to legitimate the access of xenophobic parties to government coalitions. Parties like Die Republikaner (REP) or the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU) in Germany, the Dansk Folkeparti (DF) or Fremskridtspartiet (FP) in Denmark, the British National Party (BNP), the Lijst Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Ny Demokrati in Sweden, and Schweizer Volkspartei in Switzerland, have all received large numbers of votes at several levels of power for many years. On the basis of their votes, they claim a “democratic” mandate to oppose the democratic values that the progressive community defends against them (antiracism and so on). The extremists reduce democracy to mere numbers of votes, without acknowledging that it depends also on principles such as tolerance, pluralism and debate. Progressives, for their part, invoke these principles to show the threat posed by the extreme right to European democracies. As scholar Guy Hermet says, extremists, populists and democrats fight each other for the people and for legitimacy.16 The problem, however, is that democracies depend not only on elections, but also on values.

A strong example can illustrate our point. French presidential elections are organized in two rounds. Many candidates may take part in the first round, but if none of them receives more than 50% of the vote, then a second round is held in which only the top two candidates participate. In May 2002, after weeks of a pathetic electoral battle17 between the candidates of the two leading parties (Prime Minister Lionel Jospin for the Socialist Party and President Jacques Chirac for the Union for the Majority), the fight to get into the second round ended with a big surprise. Jean-Marie Le Pen from the Front National got more votes than Jospin and went to the second round against Chirac. As the leftist daily paper Libération put it at that time,18 voters could then choose between “l’escroc et le facho” (the crook and the fascist19). While many intellectuals, singers, artists and politicians denounced Le Pen’s fascist heritage, he could claim democratic legitimacy on the basis of his first-round vote. He presented himself as an embodiment of democracy. Once again, democracy as electoral process clashed with democracy as a set of values and principles. The two pillars of the system were at odds.

The extremists reduce democracy to mere numbers of votes,  without acknowledging that it depends also on principles such as tolerance, pluralism and debate.

Why is it so hard to tell people about the extremist threat to democracy? A second explanation lies in the evolution of extremist parties over the past twenty years. In all European countries, there are laws to curb racist, xenophobic and “negationist” rhetoric. Enacted in response to the electoral success of extreme right parties, these laws punish incitement to racist behaviour, notably against foreigners and migrants. After many convictions in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and other countries, most of the extremist leaders have changed the way they talk about World War II and about migrants in general. To evade laws against racist rhetoric, they replaced their overt xenophobia with a defense of ethnic homogeneity. Instead of attacking foreigners, they advocated the right to cultural expression for their own people;20 they set aside their nostalgia for fascism to champion their European heritage. Except for the Front National with its leaders who maintain their negationist rhetoric, most of the parties tried to change their discourse in order to avoid legal challenges and to give a better image of themselves to the electorate.

Ever since the early ’80s, the progressive community has warned the public about links between extremist parties and Nazi Germany, Pétainist France or Fascist Italy. Paradoxically, however (and this is a third element in our analysis), the success of the extremist leaders in responding to the legal threats against them served at the same time to cover up such historical links. The legislation led them to change their language. It also showed them how to look respectable in the eyes of the public opinion. Convictions in court led many actors to change their rhetoric and their image in order to avoid stereotypes denounced by progressives. Today, most extremist parties hide their connection with skinheads and avoid offensive language; the leaders are polite and most of them wear suits and ties like democratic politicians.21 Parties have changed their face and don’t scare the public anymore. Thus it is harder for the progressive community to tell the electorate that those parties are dangerous.

The new face of the extreme right leads to some confusion regarding the difference between the democratic and the non-democratic right. An example is the title of a recent book by Hans-Georg Betz: La droite populiste en Europe: Extrême et démocrate? (The Populist Right in Europe: Extreme and Democratic?).22 It is true that distinctions between the “soft” and the “hard” right are not as clear as before. Thus, the three main political issues of the extreme right (crime, unemployment and immigration) were taken up by most of the traditional parties. The myth of Europe under siege and the threat of uncontrolled migration and crime in the streets are no longer peddled just by the heirs of fascism. These themes have been mainstream for years, even on the Left, as Socialist or Green coalitions in France and Belgium have joined in the expulsion of illegal migrants. But although crime, immigration and unemployment have become mainstream issues, asserting systematic causal links among them remains an extremist characteristic. Only Le Pen, Dewinter and Haider persistently identify migrants with criminals and the unemployed, or speak of Muslims (especially since 9/11) as terrorists. In fact, with an obvious link between radical Islam and terrorism, many parties used the event to explain how they were not racist against the Muslims but wanted to protect Europe from terrorism and fundamentalism.

The question remains, however, of whether the extreme right, despite the change in its image, has undergone any change in its essential nature.

Defining the Extreme Right

Between the old fascist rhetoric with boots and brown shirts and the new polite discourse about enemies of Europe,23 is there a way to define the extreme right? If we look at the literature on the extreme right in Europe, a first characteristic of it is clearly the idea of extreme nationalism. This means the conception of a people with sacred ties to a specific territory; it implies a very inflexible identity which shuffles racial, ethnic, biological, linguistic and cultural characteristics. A second feature of the extreme right would be racism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism as attitudes stimulated by the party to protect the people—partly against outsiders who threaten its homogeneity (foreigners, migrants, Jews, etc.) and partly against internal enemies who threaten the future of the race (homosexuals, reproductive rights activists, etc.). The hunt for enemies leads to a third feature: the ideology of “Law and Order.” In fact, protecting the homogeneous white nation means building an authoritarian regime to repress internal enemies and a strong army for the fight against external ones. Other characteristics include hostility to democracy and parliamentarism, along with hatred of pluralism, debate and tolerance. Underlying all these traits, however, the belief in racial inequality—and, in fact, in race itself—is the common core of all definitions.24

Today, most extremist parties hide their connection with skinheads and avoid offensive language…

Returning to the parties discussed above, we can conclude two things. Most of the parties are extreme in terms of political rhetoric, but not in terms of their political activity in office (when they have been in office, which has not been the case for the Vlaams Blok so far). Although it may seem paradoxical, we might say that we cannot evaluate the extreme right in office today because it never got power by itself but only in coalitions, which means sharing common objectives with democratic parties. Even when its coalition partners are conservative, the European Union acts as a restraining factor, as we saw vis-à-vis the FPÖ of Jörg Haider. This probably explains the gap between old fascist rhetoric and daily action.

The Front National and the Vlaams Blok

Although some parties might be more populist than extremist,25 the Front National and the Vlaams Blok fit our criteria for extremism. Both of them champion an extreme nationalism to protect the French people and the Flemish people against foreigners, migrants, Walloons,26 Jews, and other kinds of enemies such as homosexuals or pro-abortion activists. Both the FN and the VB have direct links with World War II collaborationists, and both display nostalgia for fascist leaders. The two parties have developed a racist rhetoric for years, and they persistently link criminality with migrants and call for strengthening the police and the state.

The fact that they fit the extreme right definition is significant because they are the most powerful parties in that category in Europe. Let us now look at their electoral base. In regional councils, the FN went from 137 deputies in 1986 and 237 deputies in 1992 to 275 deputies in 1998 and 156 deputies in 2004. At the national level for the legislative elections in the parliament, the FN had 25 deputies in 1986. After the abandonment of proportional representation, the FN saw this number reduced to 1 in 1988, 0 in 1993, 1 in 1997, and 0 in 2002. In elections to the European Parliament, the FN got 10 representatives in 1984 and 1989, 11 in 1994, 5 in 1999, and 7 (including Le Pen himself ) in 2004. At the presidential level, Le Pen got 0.75% of the vote in 1974, 14.4% in 1988, 15% in 1995, and 17% in the first round for his second-place finish in 2002 (an amount to which he added less than 1% in the second round). These figures show that the party has a continuing impact on French politics at all levels.

Although the Vlaams Blok has been excluded from administrative office at all levels by the cordon sanitaire, it has continuously increased its representation, its role and its influence as an important part of the opposition. At the local level, the VB progressed from 2 deputies in one local council in 1982 (in Antwerp, the biggest city in Flanders) to 23 deputies in 10 councils in 1988, 204 deputies in 86 councils in 1994, and 461 deputies in 163 councils in 2000. At the provincial level (Belgium has 9 provinces), the VB went from 2 deputies in 1978 and 1985 to 36 deputies in 1991, 34 in 1994, and 54 in 2000. In the federal parliament, the VB started with 1 deputy from 1978 to 1985. It got 18 deputies in 1991 (during what has come to be known as Black Sunday), 32 in 1995, 43 in 1999, 49 in 2003, and finally 64 in 2004. The Vlaams Blok is today as powerful as the main traditional parties. In the European elections, the VB got 1 deputy in 1989, 2 in 1994 and 1999, and 3 in 2004. The VB is thus one of the most powerful parties Flanders today, a position which is confirmed by opinion polls.

What can we say for the future? Insofar as the Front National maintains its aggressive rhetoric of nostalgia, Holocaust denial and xenophobia, it will continue to tap a protest vote. The presidential election of May 2002 showed that people were voting less for the FN than against the other parties. The Front National thus appears to have a future as an anti-system party but not as a participant in governing coalitions with the main traditional parties. The situation is very different for the Vlaams Blok, which, as a result of court convictions, has changed its name, a part of its program, and some of its rhetoric. The VB personifies Flemish nationalism against Unitarian Belgium and “cosmopolitan Europe.” As a deeply rooted party becoming “respectable,” it may well enter future coalitions and become “mainstream.” Using the old terms fascism and Nazism to characterize it might then seem to be out of place. But no amount of “mainstreaming” will change the party’s basic goals.


1 Belgium is a federal State divided into three regions: Flanders in the northwest, Wallonia in the southeast, and Brussels as the capital in the center.



4 Since the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) has been convicted for racist rhetoric, the party has changed its name hoping to escape the courts. It is now called the Vlaams Belang (officially translated as Flemish Interest). We will keep the earlier name of the party in this article because we are talking about events that happened before the change of name (


6 Jörg Haider, quoted in the 2004 brochure Tolérance: Des mots pour le dire.Brussels: Présence et Action Culturelles, 2004, p. 7.

7 Report by Martti Ahtisaari, Jochen Frowein and Marcelino Oreja (Paris, September 8, 2000), p.32.

8 Ibid.

9 Jean-Marie Le Pen, quoted in Tolérance: Des mots pour le dire, p. 13.

10 “Negationist” is a stronger term than “revisionist” to describe those who try to question the existence of the Holocaust and the gas chambers in order to rehabilitate fascism by denying its crimes.

11 Quoted in the extreme right French newspaper Rivarol, January 7, 2005 (; 2005 is the 60th anniversary of the freeing of the Nazi camps.

12 The offer was later declared unconstitutional.

13 Parce que!, no. 7, February 22, 1990, p. 17.

14 Speech at the VB’s «Family Festival» in 1991.

15 During a speech in Leuven in November 1991, quoted in Van den Brink, Rinke. 1996. L’Internationale de la haine: Paroles d’extrême droite.Brussels: Éditions Luc Pire, p. 103.

16 Hermet, Guy. 2001. Les populismes dans le monde: Une histoire sociologique XIXème –XXème siècle. Paris: Fayard, p. 15.

17 Angeli, Claude, and Mesnier, Stéphanie. 2002. En basse campagne. Paris: Grasset.


19 Chirac was called a crook because of charges of illegal financing of his party, among other things. As president since 1995, he has enjoyed immunity from court action against him.

20 Taguieff talks about the “absolutisation” of cultural differences. Among many sources, see Taguieff, Pierre- André. 1991. Face au racisme (vol.II). Paris: La Découverte, pp. 35, 36.

21 Occasionally, some of them lapse, as during a May 1995 rally in Paris when skinheads from the FN threw Brahim Bourram (a young man of Maghreb origin) into the Seine, drowning him.

22 Betz, Hans-Georg. 2004. La droite populiste en Europe. Extrême et démocrate? Paris: CEVIPOF/Autrement.

23 See Backes, Uwe. 2001. «L’extrême droite: les multiples facettes d’une catégorie d’analyse», pp. 13-29, in Perrineau, Pascal, Les croisés de la société fermée: L’Europe des extrêmes droites, Paris: Editions de l’aube; Betz, Hans- Georg. 1994. Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, London: Macmillan Press; and Mudde, Cas. 2000. The Ideology of the Extreme Right, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

24 Backes, op.cit., pp. 16-20.

25 Populism is understood here as an appeal to the people against the “corrupted” elite. See Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism, London: Junction Books.

26 Flemish nationalism has been directed against the French-speaking Walloons of southeastern Belgium. The Walloons are viewed by the VB as corrupted and lazy people who live thanks to the work and the money of the North. Analyzed in terms of the producerist narrative as described by Chip Berlet, Walloons would be a mix of parasites from above (corrupted elites) and from below (lazy and immoral people). See Berlet, C., and Lyons, M., (2000), Right-Wing Populism in America, New York: Guilford Press, p. 6.

Jérôme Jamin is a researcher in Political Science, University of Liège, Belgium.