British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande, both struggling with sick economies, now share another problem: a surge in voter support for far-right, anti-immigrant politicians.
The U.K. Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the European Union and sharply limit immigration, chalked up big gains in English local elections this month, mostly at the expense of Cameron’s Conservative Party. “This sends a shock wave through the Establishment,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage said after the May 2 vote, in which the party won about 150 local government seats.
UKIP’s anti-European stance is gaining ground among Conservatives—including former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, who said today that Britain should leave the EU. Britain’s relationship to the EU “fundamentally changed” after the creation of the euro currency zone, “of which, quite rightly, we are not part,” Lawson wrote in an article published in the Times newspaper.
Across the English Channel, Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right National Front (FN), now has a 32 percent popularity rating, compared to only 24 percent for President Hollande, according to a recent TNS-Sofres poll. Le Pen’s rating is the highest ever recorded by a leader of the party founded 41 years ago by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Polls show that she draws support from the far left as well as the right.
UKIP “has many points in common with us,” Marine Le Pen told France 3 television on May 4 as she campaigned for an FN candidate seeking a vacant parliamentary seat. The parties do have some striking similarities, including charismatic leaders and platforms that call on their countries to curb immigration and exit the EU.
The biggest reason for their surging appeal, though, is public exasperation with economic malaise. French unemployment is at 10.6 percent and its economy is expected to shrink 0.1 percent this year. In Britain, the economy grew 0.3 percent in the first quarter, narrowly avoiding a triple-dip recession, and joblessness has risen to 7.9 percent as Cameron’s government imposes the deepest budget cuts since World War II. “People feel left behind, and they’re not clear where their country is going,” says John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Britain.
It’s a situation tailor-made for the messages of UKIP and the FN. And UKIP, after its May 2 electoral showing, can now claim a significant presence within local government. That, in turn, creates momentum as the party as it prepares for June 2014 elections for the European Parliament, where it already holds 11 of Britain’s 73 seats. Party leader Farage says he plans to run for the British Parliament in 2015.
By contrast, FN politicians hold relatively few elected posts in France. Le Pen is one of two FN members in the national parliament, and the party holds three of France’s 74 seats in the European Parliament. Tthe number of FN members in local government has declined after a surge in the 1990s.
Indeed, populist movements in Europe tend to fizzle out pretty quickly, says Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics. “Populists take very complex problems, they blame them on an alleged elite, they promise a very easy and pat solution. It’s a tricky thing to sustain.”