Almost all in their 40s, a new generation of far-right political leaders are taking root across a fortress-Europe hunkering down to foreigner-phobia, analysts say.
France’s Marine Le Pen, aged 42 and expected to take the helm of her notorious father’s National Front this weekend, recently likened street prayers by Muslims to the World War II occupation of France by the Nazis.
In liberal Netherlands, where populists last year became the country’s third biggest party, 47-year-old leader Geert Wilders compares the Koran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”.
“The new-look far-right is more than just a protest movement,” said Magali Balent of the Robert Schuman Foundation.
“It’s developed an ethnically-based discourse about European identity that’s in phase with social problems.”
Far-right parties currently are in government in Italy and backing minority cabinets in Denmark and the Netherlands. They also sit in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden.
Contrary to common belief, analysts say far-right victories and the anti-immigration, Islamophobic and Euro-sceptic ideas pedalled by the populists cannot be attributed to the global crisis or economic hardships.
“The anti-Islamic discourse found fertile ground in the aftermath of the Cold War era of the early 90s, and was reinforced by 9/11 and later attacks in London and Madrid,” said Balent.
But most of the far-right parties took root in the 70s and 80s, times of relative prosperity before unemployment bit into Europe, said Matthew Goodwin of London’s Chatham House think-tank. “There is a high level of anxiety in our societies that touches not just on immigration itself but on a perceived incompatibility of foreigners, and specially Muslims, with Western values,” he said.
Surveys show the average far-right supporter to be very much an average European, though often less educated.
Continued gains by the populists, according to analysts, is partly due to the failure of mainstream parties to clearly confront concerns over immigration and Islam, instead of sidestepping the issues or offering pale copies of populist policy.