Europe's Fringe Revival


"Posterity weaves no garlands for imitators: the fickle mob has called for new heroes. And the heroes of yesterday have sunken into oblivion." — Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

The European political pantheon is shifting and shaking as the continent’s financial crisis worsens. The far right has begun plotting violence and national leaders are rising and falling ever more rapidly.

Electors are looking for new leaders. They are casting around, sampling ideologies and parties. An increasing number are choosing "none of the above". An anti-establishment mood is most noticeable in France and Greece, which are in the midst of election campaigns, but it is beginning to extend across much of the rest of Europe. Anger at perceived mismanagement of the euro crisis by European leaders has begun to feed into the polls.

Surprisingly, while the far right has benefited in some places (like Hungary), elsewhere it is the far left that has received an electoral boon. After being buried at the end of the Cold War, the Marxist left is being exhumed as an electoral force in much of Europe today. Old-style communists may not be receiving as much support as during the 1970s when, for instance, the Italian party regularly won first place in national elections. Yet real electoral gains point to a leftist revival being more than mere café chitchat.

A week out from the French presidential election, the campaigns of conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande organised massive public meetings. Over 100,000 attendees rallied for them on Sunday.

But the rally that drew the most impressive turnout was very possibly that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front’s candidate — 120,000 turned out to see Mélenchon in Marseilles on the weekend. "The crowd waved communist banners, interspersed with occasional Soviet flags, and yelled over and over ‘resistance!’" reported Austria’s Der Standard from the event.

With polls forecasting the communist candidate will win between 13 and 15 per cent of the vote next weekend, his campaign is hoping that he will come in ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. "We are hoping that our super campaign won’t be criticised if the result is worse [than the polls indicate]," a source close to Mélenchon confided to French independent website Mediapart.

Mélenchon has won his support with rhetorical flair and populist policies. For the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mélenchon is "Hugo Chávez à la française", the candidate who bests embodies the "dissatisfaction and disenchantment of many French voters". At the top of his programme is a France that has "placed itself outside of the world of global capitalism", continues the paper. His policies include an increase in the minimum wage to €1700 per month, fines for companies that offshore work to low-wage countries and confiscation of salaries in excess of €360,000.

"It’s the return of the Jacobins," cries Le Nouvel Observateur. The Left Front candidate has hardly disguised his admiration for the man who inaugurated the Terror during the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre. "Politically, [Mélenchon] embodies a very old tradition, one… that builds barricades from insults and raises its fist to deliver verbal knockouts to financiers, to the market," explains the French weekly.

Those who write off Mélenchon as a French political quirk are arguably being too hasty. Elsewhere in Europe, the radical left appears equally poised to win votes from those discontented with the major political parties. This is particularly true to say of Southern Europe, on the economic skids and wracked by social strife.

In Greece, much of the electorate appears ready to vote for parties opposed to several rounds of austerity packages forced on the Hellenic nation by the troika (the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank). Elections are planned for 6 May but "almost half of the electorate believe that no party has a realistic program to confront the crisis, and 48 percent believe that all of the parties are insincere," writes Barcelona’s La Vanguardia

As in France, left-wing parties are likely to be the biggest winners from voter anger. "The three parties to the left of PASOK (the socialist party that fell from office late last year) are forecast to capture up to 30 per cent of the votes," notes La Vanguardia.

Elsewhere in Greece, this figure is estimated to be as high as 42 per cent. And polls show that a radical left-wing coalition government is the preferred option from the May poll. More voters would prefer that outcome than the number that want a coalition of the big two, PASOK and the centre-right New Democracy. Still, it’s unlikely that a Greek communist government will take Greece out of the Euro. "Personal and ideological rivalries" will prevent the scenario from coming to pass, forecasts Italian magazine Tempi.

Given its divided past, voters in Germany are unlikely to back communist candidates. The Left Party, made up of the remnants of the East German ruling party and West German Social Democrat defectors, has not gained support despite voter discontent with Angela Merkel. Instead the Pirate Party, once an internet-freedom party for net geeks, is tacking rapidly towards the political mainstream.

The party again made it into a regional parliament with the state elections in Saarland last month. And now a shock poll result shows that 30 per cent of Germans may vote for the pirates in the years to come. German weekly Focus says the survey, conducted by polling firm Emnid, finds that few Germans understand what the party stands for. Instead, Germans like the party because it lacks career politicians: "Many voters have had enough of politics as usual. [The Pirates] represent a break with sound-bite politics and its supposed insincerity, where all of the important decisions are taken behind the scenes," Focus quotes Emnid boss Klaus-Peter Schöppner as saying.

Since the crisis began, there have been several volte-faces in European voter sentiment. Voters supported trusted economic managers at first, but when these managers failed to improve the economy they quickly switched camps, supporting anti-system candidates. Around 20-30 percent of voters are now backing a new generation of anti-political rebels.

If the crisis continues to convulse Europe, that number will only increase. Perhaps the new political heroes of today will have sunk into oblivion by then — but there will surely be new ones to replace them.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

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