The recent French and Dutch elections have proved surprising and sensational for those concerned about right-wing populism in Europe—but in very different ways. In France, Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) surprised pollsters and experts by receiving just under 18 per cent of the vote. Together with the shock performance of the extreme right Golden Dawn in Greece, commentators were quick to infer a wider rise in populism as the European debt crisis continued. Yet at the time the French and Greek elections seemed not necessarily in line with a broader European trend. Indeed, as noted by René Cuperus, the recent Dutch elections—which saw Geert Wilders lose approximately a third of his vote—elicited positive reactions from those who interpreted it as a signal of the end of populism in the Netherlands, even Europe as a whole.
Counterpoint, a research and advisory group, has produced a new pamphlet that can contribute to a further understanding of both these election results. Using recent survey data from national election studies and the European Social Survey, we analyse the “reluctant radicals”—the uncommitted supporters of right-wing populist parties. These supporters are crucial to the electoral futures of right-wing populist parties because they provide the votes needed for such parties to stretch beyond their core constituencies. And, because they are uncommitted, we think they are the most volatile supporters.
Using the latest data from the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po University (CEVIPOF), we characterise the French reluctant radicals as “disconnected”, on the basis of their low levels of interest in politics and interpersonal trust and their tendency to live in rural areas. Alongside this, we find that, among FN voters as a whole, 79 per cent hesitated because they felt that Marine Le Pen was often “finger-pointed”. Interestingly, this is not matched with high levels of shame: only two per cent say they were very ashamed and only four per cent say they were somewhat ashamed of voting for Marine Le Pen.
It is clear from our findings that, for all Marine Le Pen’s efforts, the Front National is still a highly stigmatised party—even if Front National voters tend to overcome this stigma at the ballot box with a kind of wilful pride. While there exists a large group of potential radicals—supporters who have views on immigration, security, Europe and the death penalty in line with the FN but who did not vote for Le Pen—our findings suggest that it could be a concern over stigmatization that puts the potential radicals off.
While she put in a strong showing at the last election, Le Pen’s strategy of ‘de-demonization’ looks to have been not entirely successful. The FN may find itself in a stalemate with the mainstream—too entrenched on the French political scene to be overcome completely, but not able to shake off enough off the baggage to become a serious competitor to the mainstream right UMP.
The Netherlands is another story—Wilders may have done badly, but there is still all to play for. Our analysis of the Dutch reluctant radicals indicates a love-hate relationship with the mainstream consensus politics. In 2010, they displayed low levels of trust towards political institutions: only 43 per cent said they trusted the government, lower than the average figure of 64 per cent. But, as Ian Buruma points out in his excellent book Murder in Amsterdam, they also exhibited a degree of nostalgia—an urge to preserve Dutch culture, particularly in the face of Muslim immigrants with different customs, signs, narratives and norms.
The paradox appears when Dutch culture is understood in its complex relationship to consensus. Consensus is, on the one hand, admired and believed to be worthy of preservation at all costs—the Polder Model, named after the large amount of low-lying land reclaimed and maintained by the Dutch through cooperation, is an illustration of a view of consensus that is all about solidarity and solidity. But consensus is also symbolic of stagnation, of unresponsive and un-representative “cosy” politics, that creates a deep distrust in mainstream politics. This is the part of the relationship to consensus that drives the reluctant radicals to vote for a figure who undermines the legitimacy of the political system. In the context of this love-hate relationship to consensus politics, the strong showing of the mainstream parties in 2012 after Wilders’ success in 2010 is not so surprising: voters found themselves drawn to the stability and predictability of the mainstream in a time of crisis.
On the other hand, a “Purple” coalition of both centre-left and centre-right puts Wilders in the perfect position to once again exploit outrage at the political elite. As others have suggested, it may be wishful thinking to express relief that the Netherlands’ dalliance with political instability is over. Given the volatility of the Dutch electorate, another change of direction is quite possible.
So we have two elections—one with a right-wing populist emerging strengthened; the other with a right-wing populist defeated—where the headline results reveal only the most short-term trajectory for right-wing populism. Exploring the reluctant radicals will, we hope, help to deepen the understanding of how this critical and problematic political movement will develop.