For Europe’s Far-Right, Vaccine Skepticism Is a Trap

Playing to the anti-vaccine base hasn’t led to electoral gains—yet.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
People protest France’s vaccination law.
People protest France’s vaccination law.
A protester holds a placard reading “Freedom” while others wave French national flags during a demonstration against France’s compulsory vaccination law for certain workers and the mandatory use of the health pass in Marseille, France, on July 24. CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/AFP via Getty Images

In late November, as Italy was preparing to introduce tighter restrictions on the unvaccinated amid a new wave of COVID-19 cases, a loud argument between two lawmakers from the hard-right League party rang out in the hallways of the lower house of parliament. One of the two started ranting against the tougher rules proposed by the government, at which point his colleague urged him to cut out his vaccine-skeptical “bullshit,” according to Italian media. The fight almost escalated into a physical confrontation.

The incident shows just how bad the tensions can get within Europe’s far-right parties when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines and measures targeting the unjabbed. While most populist right-wing parties have voiced some level of vaccine skepticism over the past year, and far-right supporters have often been on the frontlines of protests against government crackdowns on the unvaccinated, for some of these parties the issue is proving a political hot potato that is dividing their ranks without bringing any tangible electoral benefits.

The debate on COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions “is not really playing to their strengths,” said Stijn van Kessel, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London. “They reduce the salience of typical radical right issues such as immigration and cultural change. Generally speaking, this isn’t good news for them.” 

In late November, as Italy was preparing to introduce tighter restrictions on the unvaccinated amid a new wave of COVID-19 cases, a loud argument between two lawmakers from the hard-right League party rang out in the hallways of the lower house of parliament. One of the two started ranting against the tougher rules proposed by the government, at which point his colleague urged him to cut out his vaccine-skeptical “bullshit,” according to Italian media. The fight almost escalated into a physical confrontation.

The incident shows just how bad the tensions can get within Europe’s far-right parties when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines and measures targeting the unjabbed. While most populist right-wing parties have voiced some level of vaccine skepticism over the past year, and far-right supporters have often been on the frontlines of protests against government crackdowns on the unvaccinated, for some of these parties the issue is proving a political hot potato that is dividing their ranks without bringing any tangible electoral benefits.

The debate on COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions “is not really playing to their strengths,” said Stijn van Kessel, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London. “They reduce the salience of typical radical right issues such as immigration and cultural change. Generally speaking, this isn’t good news for them.” 

Some of the most established parties in the far-right camp, such as the League, France’s National Rally, and Belgium’s Flemish Interest, are faced with the difficult task of nodding to the vaccine skepticism of many of their supporters without hampering their efforts to be seen as reputable political actors and alienating those who don’t buy into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, van Kessel said.

The National Rally (known as the National Front until 2018) is treading a particularly narrow path. Its leader Marine Le Pen has pursued a “de-demonization” strategy for a decade, and has a good chance of facing French President Emmanuel Macron in an election runoff next year. But now she has to worry about keeping her highly vaccine-hesitant base on board. In a poll published this summer, 30 percent of National Rally supporters said they did not intend to get vaccinated, compared with only 5 percent of conservatives. 

Like most radical right parties, the National Rally has shied away from officially opposing vaccines head-on, preferring to present itself as the champion of individual liberties and enemy of government restrictions on the unjabbed. “Our position is freedom to get vaccinated or not, and respect for either choice,” said Virginie Joron, a National Rally member of the European Parliament. 

But despite this mantra, the party has struggled to get a coherent message across. Le Pen acknowledges vaccines “are useful to prevent the most severe cases of COVID,” but also belittles their impact on transmission and insists on underscoring potential side effects. Among her party’s rank and file, some go as far as questioning the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign as a way out of the crisis.

For Italy’s League (known as the Northern League until 2018), which backs Mario Draghi’s national unity government and rules some of the country’s wealthiest northern regions, striking the right balance between pragmatism and old populist instincts has proved even harder. Last month, its leader Matteo Salvini, notoriously ambiguous on vaccines and fiercely opposed to mandatory jabs, had to cave to pressure from coalition partners and his own regional governors, who are eager to stamp out a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. The approval of new vaccine passports that can only be obtained after vaccination or recovery from COVID-19a negative test result no longer sufficessparked a violent anti-vaccine backlash on Salvini’s social media pages: “You fooled us,” one user wrote. 

The powerful party cadres from the Italian northeast, who maintain close ties with the local manufacturing sector, view vaccines as a valuable tool to keep the country open, said Mattia Zulianello, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Trieste. Salvini “has the problem of holding together two different Leagues,” he said.

Not all far-right parties are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Those with fewer government responsibilities or ambitions are often freer to entertain outright vaccine skepticism, outflanking and siphoning support away from more mainstream rivals. In the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy has successfully banged the drum of vaccine skepticism, going from two to eight parliament seats following elections in March. “This is a key issue for them now,” van Kessel said. Baudet’s promotion of conspiracy theories has been accused of exacerbating tensions over COVID-19 rules in the country, which saw violent riots break out in several cities last month.

France’s Florian Philippot, who isn’t vaccinated and has voiced doubts about the efficacy of large-scale COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, saw his visibility soar over the summer as he spearheaded the backlash against vaccine passports, although he is currently polling at barely 1 percent in the presidential race, hardly threatening Le Pen’s leadership of the French far-right camp.

Across the Alps, post-fascist Brothers of Italy has benefitted from being virtually the only opposition to Draghi’s majority, which allows it to question the government’s vaccination passports policy from a more coherent position than Salvini’s. It has now overtaken the League as Italy’s biggest right-wing party. 

Elsewhere, vaccine hesitancy has helped far-right parties recover their footing amid damaging internal crises. For the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), the first months of the pandemic coincided with crippling infighting between moderates and extremists over some of its members’ ties with the neo-Nazi scene. In this situation, vaccine skepticism “was a way to close ranks,” Zulianello said. The party strongly opposes any coercive measures to force people to get vaccinated, as well as restrictions of individual freedoms to stem the spread of the virus. Its leader Alice Weidel has long stressed that she isn’t vaccinated—and contracted COVID-19 last month.

“From the very beginning we have been a civil liberties party, including some strongly libertarian elements,” Gunnar Beck, an AfD member of the European Parliament, said. “Our position is closely aligned with our founding principles.”

In September’s federal elections, about half of unvaccinated voters cast their ballots for the AfD, according to a study commissioned by the German health ministry. While losing support nationally, the party maintained a strong support in Saxony and Thuringia, some of the regions with the lowest vaccination rates in the country. This kind of protest vote is likely to endure, after the government announced last week plans to shut people who haven’t been vaccinated out from many parts of public life.

Similarly, vaccine skepticism has helped the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) find new credibility with its base after a corruption scandal struck its leadership in 2019, Zulianello said. After losing support over much of 2019 and 2020, in the past year the FPÖ has been steadily climbing in polls.

Vaccine hesitancy among many radical right supporters is partly due to their populist mindset, which leads them to question advice from political and scientific elites and reject the government-imposed limitations to the common man’s rights and freedoms, van Kessel said. A study published earlier this year found a strong link between populist attitudes and conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 vaccines and the coronavirus in general.

But flirting with vaccine skeptics hasn’t proved an electoral panacea for the far-right in general. The National Rally performed below expectations in June’s regional vote, while in Italy the right-wing candidates backed by the League and Brothers of Italy failed to clinch any of the top cities up for grabs in local elections in October. The AfD in Germany and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands both lost seats in legislative elections held earlier this year.

“[Far-right parties] have been able to appeal to their core constituencies, but not to draw support beyond the group of voters that’s already inclined towards them,” said Nils Ringe, director of the Jean Monnet EU Center for Comparative Populism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But as the pandemic simmersand new variants like omicron seem to guarantee a fresh wave of COVID-19 casesgovernments are requiring more booster vaccinations and additional restrictions, especially for the unvaccinated. The resulting COVID-19 fatigue could end up playing to the far-right’s advantage. According to a recent YouGov survey, public satisfaction with government handling of the pandemic has waned since 2020 in several European countries, including Germany and Italy. In Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, more people now feel that their government’s response to COVID-19 has been “too restrictive” of personal freedoms.

The longer the health crisis lasts, “the bigger the chance that mainstream parties will be blamed, which might well benefit populist parties in the medium or longer term,” Ringe said.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.