Matthew Goodwin
Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme

In different ways, the elections in France and Greece will provide a barometer of the health of far right parties.

France: Europe's Future?

In France, Marine Le Pen, president of the Front National (FN), hopes to build on her success in the recent presidential elections by focusing on the deprived northern area of Hénin-Beaumont, where she hopes to enter the national parliament alongside perhaps a dozen or so other of the 570 FN hopefuls. 

Since her election as President of the FN in early 2011, Marine Le Pen has sought to detoxify the forty-year old brand, distancing herself from the more blatant forms of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice espoused by her father, and seeking to connect with a more recent generation of voters who have grown anxious amidst continued immigration and the onset of a global financial crisis.

This process should not be dismissed, as the French FN has long been considered by academic experts as having provided the key blueprint to other far right parties in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. In other words, the direction of Marine Le Pen's FN may tell us much about the broader evolution of the far right in Europe more generally.

Hénin-Beaumont is ideal territory for the far right: disproportionately high rates of economic deprivation; large numbers of residents dependent on welfare; and a former mining area that has been heavily dependent on heavy but declining industries. It is also familiar territory to Marine Le Pen, who contested the seat in 2007 and attracted almost 25% of the vote in the first round, only losing out in a second round run-off. This time the aim is to go further by entering Parliament and continue the longer-term mission of transforming the FN – as the centre-right and post-Sarkozy Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) struggles to find its feet – into a seemingly legitimate national force. 

Le Pen is almost certain to pass the first round: one recent poll suggests that she could attract 37% of the vote in the first round this Sunday, but is then predicted to lose the second round to the candidate from the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Either way, the outcome and the broader performance of FN candidates will ensure that Le Pen and her party will continue to enjoy a prominent position on the French political landscape as she sets about attempting to usurp the UMP as the dominant force on the right. 

Over the longer-term conditions will remain favourable for the FN. As elsewhere in Europe, a stubbornly persistent eurozone crisis, economic stagnation, continued public concern over immigration and broader anxieties over financial insecurity and perceived threats to national identity will each cultivate electoral opportunities for the far right.

Greece's Far Right: Small Gains

The situation in Greece, however, is markedly different. Despite attracting considerable attention after polling almost 7% and capturing 21 seats in the Greek Parliament in May, Golden Dawn represents an altogether different 'model' of far right politics. The party's openly neo-Nazi posturing, the Holocaust revisionism of its leadership and the physical attacks committed by its newly-elected representatives are symbolic of a type of far right politics that is not on the electoral ascendency but is in retreat. 

The party has benefited electorally amidst a combination of unique and increasingly dire political and economic circumstances, but it is unlikely that Golden Dawn will sustain its current electoral presence, either at elections on 17 June or over the longer-term. 

Primarily, this is due to the simple reality that the most successful far right movements in Europe have been those that distance themselves from crude racial prejudice, anti-Semitism and anti-democratic statements (an observation that is also supported by a significant amount of academic evidence). It also owes much to the way in which Golden Dawn has presented itself to the Greek electorate since elections in May. While neo-Nazis might temporarily prosper amidst extreme conditions, in modern Europe they pose much less of an electoral challenge than the more adept and strategic positioning of the Le Pen-style radical right. 

One month from now it is likely that those who are concerned about the electoral challenge from populist extremists will be focusing their attention more on France, than Greece.