Europe’s radical-right parties have quickly understood the benefit they can derive from criticizing their respective governments in managing the COVID-19 health crisis. Their communication focuses on three main areas. First, they question the animal origin of the epidemic through the use of several conspiracy theories. Second comes the criticism of globalization presented as the root cause of the pandemic. And, finally, they criticize the threats that lockdowns and other measures, such as the wearing of face masks, impose on the individual freedoms of European citizens.
Did a French Far-Right Thinker Predict 2020?
The conspiratorial mindset of the European radical right is evident in the current COVID-19 moment. Like other extremist milieus, the idea of a hidden cause according to which any historical event occurs is prevalent. The search for mysterious reasons that the powerful media and political elites would like to hide from the people is never far away in the far-right diagnosis of the origins of the pandemic. In particular, as the origin of the virus is still disputed in public discourse, the pandemic is the ideal issue for those who are prone to such conspiratorial thinking.
We shouldn’t get too carried away with ourselves here, however. Not all radical-right actors have reacted to the pandemic with conspiracy theories. One of the most interesting issues is that some of them have reactivated the theme of the West having to fight communism, embodied no longer by the USSR but by China as a new bête noire. Swedish MEP Charlie Weimers, for example, accused China of using opacity and lies to downplay the scale of the epidemic, an attitude which he says stems from the command-and-control nature of communism itself.
Other parties or figures on the European radical right have raised questions not only about the responsibility of the Chinese government for a late and inappropriate response to the pandemic, but also put forward the idea that the virus escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan. This theory, propagated in mid-April by Professor Luc Montagnier, the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine, was relayed in France by the elected representatives of the National Rally (RN), Julien Odoul and Gilbert Collard. The RN, however, did not fully follow in the footsteps of Professor Montagnier and calls for the creation of an international commission of inquiry into the origins of the epidemic.
Added to this, the pandemic has allowed the European radical right to develop the notion that “elites” are using the health crisis to hasten in an authoritarian form of government. For example, Spain’s Vox MEP Jorge Buxadé accused President Pedro Sanchez’s left-wing government of authoritarianism when it withdrew from parliamentary control lockdown measures limiting freedom of movement. The RN, which published “The Black Book of the Coronavirus: From the fiasco to the abyss,” a brochure criticizing the French government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, accused the authorities of using “guilt, infantilization and threats” against the French people in order to enforce a lockdown.
Other more marginal movements, which do not have to worry about achieving political credibility, have protested against outright “dictatorship,” such as the Italian fundamentalist neo-fascist and Catholic New Force party. In Hungary, the nationalist Jobbik party, which now seeks to defeat Viktor Orban by allying itself, if necessary, with the center-left opposition, decided to denounce government attacks on media freedom during the pandemic.
The European radical right everywhere has fired bullets at incumbent governments, accusing them of failing to meet the challenges of dealing with the epidemic. In March, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, accused President Emmanuel Macron of ordering the state to lie and cover up the extent of the pandemic by giving the French people incomplete or false information in order to hide his incompetence. It was the only French political party to absolutely refuse any policy of national unity in response to the pandemic and to support the hydroxychloroquine-based treatment recommended by Professor Didier Raoult.
The Spanish Vox party also issued very strong words against the government, using such phrases as “criminal management,” “obscurantism,” “loss of all credibility” and “insulting” (in respect to the people of Spain). The situation in Italy also prompted the far-right League party to attack the coalition formed by the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the center-left Democratic Party. On the night of April 29, for example, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini showed his contempt of parliament by occupying the senate hemicycle with a dozen other elected officials to denounce economic restrictions, delayed aid to Italian citizens and small businesses, the limitations on freedom of movement and the side-lining of parliamentary powers by the Conte government.
But a poll carried out on May 8 shows that even if the League remains in the lead, with 26.7%, when it comes to voting intentions, its popularity has been declining since the start of the health crisis while another nationalist party, the Brothers of Italy, is credited with 14.1% — more than double of the 6.2% it won in the 2019 European elections.
No Coherent Response
Despite all this, the European radical right seems to have failed to develop coherent responses to the COVID-19 crisis. The speed with which the pandemic spread was unrelated to the limited migratory flows observed on the Greek island of Lesbos at the end of February, thus depriving the radical right of the possibility of singling out immigration as the cause of the pandemic. Instead, in all European countries, the radical right put the blame on globalization.
Their idea, therefore, is that the pandemic was caused by globalization itself, which generates continuous flows of travel and international exchange, immigration notwithstanding. Globalization, they say, allows multinationals to make financial profits in times of crisis, while the poorest are hit hardest by unemployment and the overwhelmed national health systems. Thus, as a way of example, the Hungarian Mi Hazànk party writes: “We are happy to note that the government accepted our idea of a special solidarity tax on multinationals and banks” and calls for a moratorium on debts and evictions.
For the European radical right, the health crisis was an opportunity to denounce the European Union, which leaves the competence over health policy to individual member states, and to underline the absolute necessity of returning control of the borders back to member states. As Thierry Baudet, the leader of the Dutch far-right Forum for Democracy, says, “the Nation-State is the future.” During the COVID-19 crisis, European radical-right parties, including the National Rally, have continued to reiterate that they were the first to have warned of the dangers of bringing “back home” potentially strategic industries such as pharma away from China and India.
The European radical right has failed for several other reasons as well. In Hungary and Poland, the conservative, illiberal right who are in power very quickly closed their borders, which led to the pandemic being contained. In addition, the governments of the most affected countries, Spain and Italy, have (belatedly) managed the crisis well, as had Germany, where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has dropped to its lowest levels in voting intentions since 2017.
To add insult to injury, the AfD is even faced with the birth of a single-issue party, Resistance 2020, that is even more conspiratorial than the AfD and lobbies for the complete rejection of all government-sponsored measures to fight the pandemic. At this point, Marine Le Pen’s popularity rating only rose by 3%, to 26% in May. Were presidential elections set for 2022 held today, she would lose to the incumbent Emmanuel Macron by 45% against 55% — a sobering thought for theorists who suggest that extremism inevitably grows in a crisis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.