For the past five years, in the bastions of civilized Europe, the far right has been resurgent. Extreme right-wing political parties have scored unprecedented electoral success in a number of countries, including Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Far-right street movements of disgruntled young men, barely seen for a generation, are appearing in greater numbers in busy Strassen, plazas, and boulevards. Until Friday, July 22, governments and the security services viewed this as a worrying trend, but one that could be contained. With the stunning, tragic attacks in Norway, that has now changed. Intelligence agencies, concerned more with al Qaeda for a decade, are suddenly alert to a new and deadly threat.
The relationship between ascendant far-right extremism and political violence is suddenly a top political and security concern. Right-wing groups will come under great scrutiny, and governments are likely to re-examine the case for proscribing some of them. But should they? For the past six months, we have been examining this question through a large-scale survey of extreme right-wing political activists and sympathizers across Europe. The answer is far from simple.
Over the last decade, the extreme right in Europe has become more palatable. The overt racism and chest-beating nationalism of previous years have been discarded. What characterizes the new far-right is a defiant, aggressive defense of national culture and history in the face of a changing world, of secularism, and even of democracy and liberty. While each has its idiosyncrasies, far-right parties are responding to genuine concerns of many voters: that modern globalization hasn't benefited them, that mass immigration -- especially from Muslim-majority countries -- is threatening local and national identity.
Perhaps most importantly, these new far-right parties like Geert Wilders's Freedom Party in the Netherlands or Marine Le Pen's Front National in France expertly portray mainstream politicians as spineless, soft-boiled, venal, self-serving slaves to political correctness and orthodoxy. Recent events -- such as banking bailouts, the eurozone crisis, and the News International hacking scandal -- certainly lend some credibility to the view that politicians are indeed out of touch with ordinary people.
This potent mix of populism and far-right ideas -- often utilizing powerful historical and cultural reference points, such as Enlightenment philosophers and national flags -- has meant the forming of new alliances and a blurring of obvious left and right lines. Thilo Sarrazin, for example, author of the book Germany Does Away With Itself, which argues that the country is sleepwalking into a multicultural abyss, is a prominent member of the left-wing Social Democratic Party. One leader of a Danish far-right organization described himself to us as an atheist Marxist.
A significant chunk of European voters is clearly impressed. Le Pen is currently third in the polling for the 2012 French presidential election. Wilders's Freedom Party is also the third-largest in the Netherlands. In Scandinavia, the True Finns, the Danish People's Party, and the Sweden Democrats all secured their best-ever electoral results over the past 18 months. Germany's and Austria's far-right parties are resurgent, sparking atavistic European fears. Further east, the Jobbik party is now the third-largest political party in Hungary, having doubled its seats during the last election.