In the wake of the Brexit vote in Britain and the recent Italian referendum, and with national elections looming in 2017 in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, there is concern that Europe may be inundated by a populist wave, driven in large part by right-wing parties exploiting anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiments. Indeed, the strategy seems to be working: Polls show that people who have a favorable view of the National Front (FN) in France, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands tend to be more negative about immigrants, refugees, and Muslims than their fellow countrymen. In addition, they are more euro-skeptic and more wary of globalization than their compatriots.
While the often nasty, nativist rhetoric of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the FN, or Geert Wilders, the founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom, is certainly key to attracting supporters, the intensity and breadth of right-wing, populist sentiments among party sympathizers — as well as a substantial minority of the general public — is notable in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The question that cannot yet be answered is whether this minority view could become widely shared in the coming months. A Pew Research Center survey in 10 European Union countries this year notes that it already has in Poland and Hungary, where there is not much difference in public sentiment about diversity, immigrants, or Muslims between those who favor the ruling right-wing parties and the views of those who do not favor them.
In France, 45 percent of those who have a favorable view of the FN say diversity makes their country a worse place to live. Only 24 percent of the overall French population believes that. But 34 percent of those who identify with the center-right Republicains agree with FN supporters. And their candidate, Francois Fillon, is a leading contender in next year’s presidential election. Meanwhile, about half of FN sympathizers voice an unfavorable view of Muslims, compared with only 29 percent who hold anti-Muslim sentiment among the general public. Roughly three-quarters of FN backers believe that refugees from Iraq and Syria pose a major threat to France, while just 45 percent of the French public agrees. So on most, but notably not all issues relating to the “other” in French society, FN sympathizers are far more negative and worried. But the anti-diversity sentiment among Republicains bears watching.
In Germany, roughly six-in-10 of those who have a favorable view of the AfD express the opinion that diversity is bad for the country. Only about three-in-10 in the German public share that view. But 39 percent of supporters of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party think diversity is bad. Anti-Muslim sentiment among AfD sympathizers is twice that among the general public (59 percent vs. 29 percent) as is the worry that refugees pose a threat to the country (63 percent vs. 31 percent). Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent call for a ban on burqas and a vow that the refugee crisis “must never be repeated” suggests she is sensitive to the appeal of some of anti-other sentiments among her own CDU/CSU voters.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders — the founder of the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) — was recently convicted of inciting racial hatred. Those who hold a favorable view of his party are far more negative about “the other” than is the general Dutch population. More than six-in-10 of these party supporters say diversity makes Holland a worse place to live. Just 36 percent of the overall public believes that. And there is a comparable disparity in views on Muslims (62 percent of Party for Freedom backers are unfavorably disposed, compared to 35 percent among the general public) and on refugees (59 percent to 36 percent). A recent poll by the Maurice de Hond Institute in the Netherlands suggests the PVV could win the most parliamentary seats in the upcoming Dutch election.
Euroscepticism and the issue of national control, a major rallying cry among those who voted in the U.K. to leave the EU, also sets apart those who favor right-wing populist parties in other nations.
Among the Germans, two-thirds of AfD sympathizers voice an unfavorable view of the EU and six-in-10 want some power returned to Berlin from Brussels. This compares with roughly half (48 percent) of the German public that sees the EU in an unfavorable light and 43 percent who want powers returned to the nation state.
In the Netherlands, about seven-in-10 PVV backers are negative about the EU (compared with 46 percent of the general public) and six-in-10 say some EU powers should be returned to the Hague (compared with 44 percent of the overall population that share such views).
France is something of an exception. Not surprisingly, given the Eurosceptic stance of Marine Le Pen, 67 percent of her party supporters have a negative view of the EU. But so too does 61 percent of the general French population. Similarly 47 percent of FN backers want some EU powers devolved to France, as do 43 percent of Republicain supporters and 39 percent of the overall public.
Wariness of globalization also characterizes right-wing populist sentiment, even in countries deeply dependent on the world economy.
In France, more than half (53 percent) of those who favor the FN believe that France’s involvement in the global economy is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs. By comparison, 45 percent of the French population share that view.
Among the Dutch, 43 percent of PVV sympathizers say global economic engagement is bad, but only 24 percent of the general public agrees. In Germany, 38 percent of those who favor the AfD believe globalization is not good for Germany. Just 24 percent of all Germans voice that opinion.
The Dutch election is scheduled for March 2017. The French election will take place in April and May. The German election will likely be held in September. It is too early to know how their respective right-wing populist parties will fare. But based on current public opinion data, it seems that they have succeeded in rallying substantial numbers of potential voters, based on appeals to anti-immigrant, anti-EU, and anti-globalization sentiments. These views are not, for the most part, majority views among the general public. But significant minorities do share some of these opinions. But the impact of the rise of the right-wing populist parties can already be seen. Center-right politicians such as Merkel and Fillion have begun to espouse views that are more anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant than heard before by politicians in their elevated positions running for national office. Populist appeals are resonating with more and more voters in Europe. And the Brexit and U.S. election outcomes suggest we may not have yet seen the high water mark of this international tide.
Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.
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