Fumbled Response

Why Europe's Right-Wing Parties Didn't Benefit From the Paris Killings

Rightist leaders didn't hold their tongues after the attacks

French far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen delivers her speech in Nanterre, outside Paris, about the recent shootings in France, on Jan. 16, 2014

Photographer: :Chamussy/Sipa via AP Images

The anti-immigrant, law-and-order parties on the right wing of European politics seemed set to score big gains in the aftermath of this month's Paris terror attacks. So why didn't they?

It wasn't for lack of trying. "Time's up for denial and hypocrisy," Marine Le Pen, head of France's National Front (FN), said shortly after the Charlie Hebdo killings on Jan. 7, at a press conference where she lambasted France for failing to address the threat of homegrown extremism. In an interview the same day, Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), said the killings were evidence of "a fifth column that is living within our own countries." And Geert Wilders, head of the rightist Freedom Party in the Netherlands, told that country's parliament: "Never say that you were not warned."

Yet polls taken a few days later showed that none of these parties gained public support after the attacks. And while tens of thousands of Germans took part in rallies by the anti-Islamist group Pegida, they were vastly outnumbered by protesters at counter-demonstrations. That seems surprising, considering that rightist parties have been gaining traction across Europe. Both the FN and UKIP outpolled mainstream parties in European parliamentary elections last year.

Here are three reasons why the Paris attacks haven't helped the European right.

Citizens rally around elected leaders in times of crisis. Like it or not, there's nothing like a national emergency to make a president look more presidential. Even France's deeply unpopular François Hollande has enjoyed soaring popularity ratings since the attacks. Often viewed as indecisive and ineffective, Hollande has taken a high-profile role in managing the crisis, including rushing to the scene of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Marching shoulder to shoulder with dozens of world leaders in Paris on Jan. 11 also helped burnish his image—while Le Pen and other FN leaders were barred from participating. In a Harris Interactive survey after the march, some 70 percent of respondents said they thought the FN should have been allowed to take part. But by then Le Pen had been effectively marginalized: Only 33 percent of respondents in the poll said she had offered "effective proposals to fight terrorism."

Rightist leaders fumbled their response. By speaking out immediately after the attacks, they gave the impression of saying, "I told you so," and seeking political gain at a time when national leaders were calling for unity. Farage came under scathing attack, with British Prime Minister David Cameron denouncing his "fifth column" comments as inappropriate, and a Labour Party leader describing them as "sickening." Farage also was ridiculed for claiming in interviews that large swaths of Europe had become Muslim-controlled "no-go zones." The UKIP leader seemed "out of his league," said Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist at the University of Georgia who studies European rightist parties. UKIP, although anti-immigrant, until now has not focused much on the threat of Islamic extremism, Mudde said. "This doesn't seem to be a topic [Farage] knows much about." Some British voters got that impression as well: 41 percent of respondents in a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times newspaper said Farage's assertion in an interview that parts of Britain had become "ghettos" governed by Islamic law was "broadly false." (Some 33 percent said they thought the assertion was "broadly true," while 26 percent said they didn't know.) The biggest blooper of all was committed by Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann, who stepped down on Jan. 21 after reports that he had posted a photo of himself posing as Adolf Hitler on his Facebook page, with a caption that read: "He's back!"

Support for rightist parties may have peaked in some places. UKIP won almost 27 percent of the popular vote in European parliamentary elections last year,  its first major electoral breakthrough. But polls since then show support among voters has hovered between 15 percent and 20 percent. Farage needs to broaden his support, and his inflammatory statements after the attacks may have been an effort to recruit voters from other rightist parties, Mudde said. In doing so, however, Farage risks alienating more centrist Tory voters who otherwise might be tempted to defect.

In France, recent polls suggest that support for FN is running at about 27 percent, only slightly above the 25 percent of the popular vote it received in last year's European parliament elections. That level of support could place the FN ahead of France's mainstream parties. But French electoral laws require a runoff when no candidate polls more than 50 percent. In such cases, supporters of mainstream parties almost always join forces to defeat the FN.

Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that European rightist movements are running out of steam. Germany's Pegida, whose formal name is Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, continues to grow and is attracting support in other countries, including Denmark. "There are nationalists among these people, and some of them are openly racist, but the majority are concerned middle-class citizens who are afraid that public order is being lost," said Andreas Beckmann, a political analyst who works in Berlin and Brussels. France's FN draws from a similar pool of voters. "The support is much larger than the people who go out to rally," Beckmann says. "We don't know how many of them stayed at home."

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