The first poll taken since the Paris massacre a week and a half ago indicates that Marine Le Pen’s Euroskeptic Front National would lead the pack in the first round of voting in France, taking 29 percent of the vote in regional elections. A center-right coalition of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains, UDI, and MoDem would garner 27 percent, with Hollande’s Socialists third at 22 percent.
Europe’s far-Right will gain a lot of strength after the Paris attacks—and for that, you can largely blame the centrists.
Not surprisingly, figures like Marine Le Pen are making hay. Just after the attacks, Le Pen called for the “immediate halt” of the admission of refugees. Hungarian President Viktor Orban crowed that he was right all along. But in doing this, the far-Right is essentially doing what it’s always done. And what gives it oxygen is also the same thing as ever: The centrists declare any discussion of immigration (other than “it’s wonderful!”) off-limits, and so drive concerned voters to where they otherwise would not go.
Even in the wake of Paris, Euro-centrists couldn’t seem to stop preening, impugning their own citizenry, and generally insisting that all must go on as before. Less than a day after the attacks, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that, “there is no need for an overall review of the European policy on refugees.” And while President Hollande has taken an admirably tough line on foreign policy and European matters, on November 18 he declared that France would increase its refugee intake over the next two years, to 30,000, in a speech whose upshot was that “France should remain as it is. Our duty is to carry on our lives.” Everything can go on the same as before, at the very least.
There may be both strategic and humanitarian arguments in favor of continuing to admit refugees, but the rhetorical tone on display from several of Europe’s highest-profile centrists, before and after the attacks, has seemed almost designed to alienate concerned citizens. All across Europe, citizens—many of whom are by no means aspiring fascists—have concerns about the newcomers that Paris only heightened. Many, though by no means all, of these questions are rational, not racist. As Ross Douthat, quoting in part an excellent Reihan Salam piece, pointed out last week:
The second danger is one for the longer term, and it’s tackled effectively by Reihan Salam over at Slate. “Given the manifest failure of France, Belgium, and Germany to successfully integrate native-born Muslims into the cultural and economic mainstream of their societies,” he asks, “despite decades of fitful efforts to that end, what reason do we have to believe that these governments will succeed in 2015?” (Especially since the failures of assimilation to date have occurred with populations that arrived gradually rather than suddenly, in eras of stronger economic growth and political optimism, etc. etc.)
And if they fail — when they fail, really, let’s be honest — then Europe will end up with more Saint-Denises, more Malmös, more Molenbeeks, and many more young men primed for anti-Semitic rabblerousing or recruitment to jihad. Today’s refugee flows are potentially linked to tomorrow’s terrorism, in other words, in the same way that the economic migrations of the 1970s and 1980s are linked to Euro-Islamism today. And European policymakers have a responsibility to consider that experience and imagine not only the threat spectrum of 2016, but what that spectrum might look like in 2025 and 2035 as well.
Douthat and Salam hit on an aspect of the debate that most U.S. coverage has thoroughly missed so far: The attackers were second-generation, European-born Muslims and that provides many Europeans with more reason to be concerned with immigration, not less.
You have to govern with the populace you have. If most of your populace is concerned with immigration, you have to address those concerns, not condemn their benighted provincialism. And that latter course is an especially bad tack if their concerns aren’t actually all that stupid.
In August, we noted a common dynamic in Europe in which “the failure of the elites to respect the will of the large swathes of people creates an increasingly illiberal right-wing backlash, which in turn drives moderates to vote for the left, and so on in cycles.” Usually, that’s the way things work. But if the elites continue to ignore the legitimate concerns of security-conscious citizens, it may be enough to break that cycle and put a nasty party in power in one or two places.
Some of those nasty parties were already close to power even before Paris. At various points this fall, polls showed the Sweden Democrats as the largest party in their country, and the Dutch PVVs at an all-time high in theirs. Marie Le Pen was already leading early projections of the French presidential race. Since Paris, in Germany the AfD has risen to third place in polls, surpassing the Greens for the first time. And among the Eastern European Visegrad countries, Viktor Orban is now listened to more than reviled.
These groups are by and large bad news; some of them, such as Le Pen and Orban, are very bad indeed. And they’re gaining because the center has responded to popular concerns about immigration with few plans and even less sympathy. The elites will eventually have to face elections—and after Paris, those may not go quite as usual. Will the centrists wake up in time?