While Europe is under the spell of the war in Ukraine, important elections are coming up in France and Hungary. Will the incumbent leaders be re-elected? What role does the extreme right play in these elections? And why do radical-right movements support Putin? We discussed these questions with one French and one Hungarian expert. “Democracy is under attack”.
Dr. Jean-Yves Camus is a specialist on the French and and European Radical Right. In the early 1980s, he was one of the first scholars to study the former Front National (now Rassemblement National). He has lectured worldwide on topics such as the New Right and Counter-Revolutionary Thinking, and is now associated with the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. There, he is currently working on a long-time research project about the history of the relations between Russia and the European Right in the 20th Century. Lately, he has also been called to testify for the Assemblée Nationale on radical-right extremism.
Dr. Ferenc Laczó teaches European Studies at Maastricht University and University College Maastricht. Prior to his time here, before 2015, he was employed at the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena and acted as guest lecturer at the University of Basel. He has also studied and held fellowships in Berlin, Bielefeld, Budapest, Los Angeles, Utrecht, Vienna and Washington D.C. His main fields of research are political history, modern and contemporary European and global history, Jewish history, and the history of mass violence. He received an award for Outstanding Interdisciplinary Research from the Centre for European Research in Maastricht in 2020 and 2021.
Camus still remembers that day in 1984: he was in the apartment of a famous scholar in political science, a friend of his father-in-law. He asked Camus what his PhD-topic would be. Camus answered that he wanted to study the extreme right and Front National, the political party that did not have any political success back then. The scholar replied: “Why don’t you choose something serious?” Not soon after, Front National started to become larger and larger, and Camus would not stop doing research on the topic ever since.
“Democracy is under attack”, Camus warns. “Not by fascists or nazi’s, but because the problems of regular people are being used as political tools by the extreme-right. Their capability to use new tools of propaganda for an ideology that is more modern than neo-fascism and more attractive to the average voter, is interesting. The people themselves have no clue of what these old ideologies actually mean. They are just being used: politicians ‘explain’ to them why they lost their jobs or why they are not happy.”
Camus has been advising several French governments on how to cope with extreme-right movements. Whereas Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen have been leaders of the extreme right beforehand, now there is a new candidate that might interest them: Eric Zemmour. “He is trying to unite part of the main-stream right and the extreme right”, Camus explains. “We do not have a clear-cut divide between those anymore. There used to be only two alternatives: conservatism and social-democracy. I don’t like this new situation, in which part of both groups are radicalising on topics like identity, immigration and European affairs. Although I am more progressive myself, I miss the kind of ‘principled’ or ‘compassionate’ conservatism that is in decline.”
“Ideas that belonged to the far-right thirty years ago, are now part of the mainstream conversation.”
Initially, Laczó was more interested in the victims of the far-right and fascist violence in Hungary. This is what he wrote his PhD on. But just like Camus, he gradually started to focus on the perpetrators themselves. “I studied how they were shaped socially, politically and culturally”, Laczó says. “I was especially interested in the link between right-wing populism today and historical fascism. What happened around the Second World War and what is going on in Europe now? In Hungary specifically, this became an important concern for me.”
Laczó explains why the political situation in Hungary has been worrying him: “Ideas that belonged to the far-right thirty years ago, are now part of the mainstream conversation. The anti-fascist consensus is weakening. In order to develop strategies to encounter this, we must understand how the former ‘mainstream’ centre-right interacts with the far-right.”
Elections in Hungary and France
On the 3rd of April, there are parliamentary elections in Hungary. The basic question here is whether Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s party, will stay in power for the fourth consecutive term. “The longer he will stay in power, the more difficult it will be to reverse all the changes that he and his party have made”, Laczó says. “However, I must also say that this surely will be the best chance that the opposition has to ‘unseat’ him.”
“These elections are not free and fair”, Laczó continues. “The current government is very strongly supported by the state’s institutions, so things are very skewed in Orbán’s favour. Still, it is a contested election, so it is going to be a close call. His party has definitely shifted to the far-right, but the even more right-wing party is now part of a united opposition, together with the left, the greens, the liberals and the conservatives. That is quite interesting. Together, they might actually have a chance of winning the election.”
If this would be the case, Laczó hopes that the new government will use education in its fight against extreme-right movements. “They should teach the Hungarian youth about basic human rights and politics more generally. Such subjects have basically been abolished in post-communist Eastern Europe, as it was seen as propaganda. But now, this has led to a lack of political education. I didn’t learn anything about political ideologies or democracy myself, when I was in school. This would be my recommendation for a new government: to finally understand that democracy and education about politics go hand in hand.”
“There is a sizeable probability that the social-democratic party in France will die.”
Exactly one week after this, there are also elections in France. The French are not voting for their parliament yet (these elections will take place in June), however, but for the presidency. “The prospects for Le Pen are quite good, it is likely that she will make it to the second round”, Camus says. “On the other hand, Macron is pretty sure to win that round. He is now leading the polls with almost 30 percent of the votes. Zemmour has no chance anymore, he will lose the first round. So the outcomes are pretty much set.”
What is yet to be seen according to Camus, however, is whether the election campaign will change something on the right wing of the political spectrum: “It might be the case that more of those people will go with Zemmour anyway, because they have had it with Macron.” On the left wing, he sees even more fragmentation: “There are several candidates, but none of them has a serious chance. The left is very weak and has to rebuild itself from scratch. There even is a sizeable probability that the social-democratic party in France will die.”
Putin’s war in Ukraine
And then there is the war of Russia, or rather Vladimir Putin, in Ukraine. According to Laczó, this war has been damaging for the far-right in Europe, especially in Hungary. “Before, they have been cherishing their Russian contacts, trying to minimise the threats of Putin’s regime. This war has been a major exposure for them, as the opponents of the Russian regime have proven to be right all along. In such a situation, they want to be ambiguous in a calculated way. Orbán is also trying out this ‘third’ approach: he is in favour of peace and security, but he also does not join the sanctions against Russia and the support for Ukraine.”
Camus sees something comparable in France, although with a different presidential candidate than Le Pen. “She has been close to Russia before, but the day Putin launched the attack on Ukraine she realised that it was not possible to be a candidate for the French presidency and say that Putin was right. So, she reacted in a ‘mainstream presidential way’ by going on the national television and stating that Putin is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim. On the other hand, Zemmour reacted like the slow writer he is. He said that we have to reflect on the complex geo-political situation and understand Putin’s reasons to invade Ukraine. That was a very serious mistake. In the polls, he immediately fell from 15 to 9 percent of the votes.”
“We don’t need to compare Putin to Hitler, in order to condemn the war in Ukraine in the strictest terms.”
Something that the media often state, is that extreme-right parties in Europe are being funded by Putin and that he is gaining influence because of that. According to Camus, this is not true. “Front National in France, Lega Nord in Italy, the FPÖ in Austria… They all share the same ideology with Putin, yes. They admire him as a model in supporting traditional family values, being patriotic and opposing the EU and the United States. They believe that Russia is much like what Western Europe should be, if we hadn’t lost touch with traditional values. However, it is because they share this agenda, that they get money, not the other way around! Otherwise, what would be Putin his interest to send money to them?”
Another issue with the current war (and other wars alike) is that the aggressor, Putin in this case, is often compared with Hitler. An unwise comparison, says Camus. “The war between Russia and Ukraine has to be understood in the context of a very long fight for their own national identity. This has nothing to do with the holocaust or what Hitler did. We have to learn how to think about totalitarian regimes without immediately referring to Hitler or nazism. If you look at the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, there was no connection with such ideologies at all.” Laczó agrees: “We don’t need to compare it to Hitler or nazism, in order to condemn the war in Ukraine in the strictest terms.”
Last, the question remains whether the extreme right should be taken seriously, or if they should rather be ignored. Laczó warns that their politicians are quite media-savvy. “Still, we need to be more calm and confident. Don’t panic and don’t be obsessed with it. There are provocations that we should just disregard without engaging with it.” And the politicians themselves? “They should take a similar stance as that of Angela Merkel. She was a decent person and still, she could be sharply critical and she knew how to express herself when she was morally outraged by certain statements. We should let the extreme-right speak and we should not silence them, because they will frame it as if they are being oppressed. Take the liberal approach: you have the freedom of speech, but you don’t have the right to get a response from us.”