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Right wing movements are growing in Europe. How do they differ from those in the U.S.?


Though the far-right National Rally party may win tomorrow's elections in France, in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party prevailed by a historic margin in a vote this week. However, the right-wing Reform Party, led by Nigel Farage, won its largest margin, too, with 14%. Italy's head of government is Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy, and Geert Wilders' far-right-wing party won the most seats in the Netherlands. How do phrases like left and right and ultra-right differ between countries in Europe and the United States? Anne Applebaum is a historian and writer for The Atlantic magazine, who joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Are there issues that Marine Le Pen in France and other right-wing parties share when they make their appeal?

APPLEBAUM: Yes. I think roughly you can sort them into two different groups. One is a group of parties who have serious designs on democracy, who, if they took power, would begin to degrade institutions, would attack the media, attack judges. And then there's another group of parties who are capitalizing on different kinds of discontent. Mostly, the thing that unites the - what we call the far right in Europe is discontent about immigration, but sometimes it's more general. It's more we don't want foreign influence. We don't like the European Union. We don't want to be as integrated with the outside world. Usually, there's a nationalist element, which is what distinguishes them from the far left. And sometimes, there's a racist element. Again, there are gradations between these parties, and I don't want to overgeneralize, although it's also true, I should say that they're beginning to learn from one another, so they copy one another's tactics. And that's another reason why they sometimes sound the same.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Western support for Ukraine. Nigel Farage in the U.K. said a week ago, we, meaning the West, have provoked this war. And, of course, Marine Le Pen has been notably friendly toward Putin's Russia.

APPLEBAUM: So, again, some far-right parties have had some historical alliance with Russia, and one of them is Farage who - some people who work with him may have had financial relations with Russia. One of them is Le Pen, who has also taken money from Russia to fund election campaigns in the past. There are several other political parties in Europe. The AFD in Germany, the Austrian far right also have very clear Russian ties and links. And then there are others who don't. Giorgia Meloni's party in Italy has been very clear about wanting to be at the center of NATO, wanting to support Ukraine. So there's a general division between them. And I think it also matches this division I talked about in the first answer, which is, are these parties who are really against the democratic order, or are they more focused on trying to take power using national discontent about immigration?

SIMON: And what do they have in common in your judgment with what the Republican Party has become under Donald Trump?

APPLEBAUM: So the Republican Party - a part of the Republican Party, I should say - has learned from them. And a part of it consciously has adopted their tactics and their language. The social media campaigning of the kind we first saw in 2016 - you know, very aggressive, mocking form of online campaigning - some of this was borrowed from the European far right, and some people who are around Trump - Steve Bannon and others - have openly talked about feeling unified and feeling part of an international far-right movement. So they learn things from one another. They borrow themes. Sometimes they borrow tactics. They also spend a certain amount of time with one another.

I mean, I suppose the one we haven't spoken about yet - Viktor Orban, who is the prime minister of Hungary, is one of those far-right leaders who, when he was elected democratically, then set about dismantling the Hungarian state. He's been very clear that he prefers Trump to win the election. He has some influence on think tanks in Washington and on people around Trump. The frightening thing, I suppose, about the prospect of a second Trump presidency would be that there would now be people in the Republican Party who would be prepared to go down that path.

SIMON: What are you looking for out of the French elections tomorrow?

APPLEBAUM: The most interesting thing about the French elections is, first of all, the thing that's already happened, which is how many either left-wing or centrist candidates dropped out. In other words, when there was a three-way race or sometimes a four-way race, candidates who were in opposition to Marine Le Pen's party sometimes have made the decision - I think the majority of them made the decision to drop out. And that could mean that even though she had a historically high support and very large turnout - you know, more than 30% - it could mean that her final numbers - so the numbers of actual members of parliament in France - will be lower than expected because of this de facto electoral deal between the center and the left. And how that plays out, that'll be the most interesting thing to watch, is were the other parties able to formally or informally agree to oppose her, and when that happens, did they win?

SIMON: If right-wing parties take some positions of power in France, will they have to become more conciliatory?

APPLEBAUM: So there is a record of right-wing parties in Europe in power becoming conciliatory. Meloni's party in Italy is one of them. Of course, Viktor Orban is the opposite example. He's become more radical the longer he's been in power. Certainly, it's possible that if Le Pen is within a system in which she doesn't have a complete majority and she's forced to work with other parties, then, yes, it's possible that she'll have to obey the rules. And, of course, that would be the other thing to look for in the elections, is if there was a far-right victory, what's their margin? Do they have to have a coalition with others? The more she has to cooperate, the less danger there is to the French state, the less danger is that she'll lead the far right into an assault on the state of the kind that has been successful in Hungary, the kind that was tried in Poland - ultimately failed - and the kind that we would be - it would be very frightening to see in France.

SIMON: Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic, thanks so much for being with us.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAEGEL SONG, "WATCH YOUR BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.