Right-wing populism is going from strength to strength in Europe. That’s nothing new in the East: the genuinely pro-Fascist parties always do well in Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. Heirs to the jingoistic ideologies of the 1930s, they champion an ethnic-religious national identity, reviving old territorial disputes and the perennial issue of ethnic minorities.

In Hungary, the general elections on 10 April should deliver victory to the big conservative nationalist party Fidesz, but also confirm the breakthrough of Jobbik, an anti-Semitic, xenophobic party that now boasts three MEPs of its own. In Slovakia, the radically nationalist National Slovak Party (SNS) is likely to stand its ground in a coalition government after the 12 June parliamentary elections.

Against multicultural society and Islam

Here in the West, right-wing extremism has been thriving since its facelift. “We’re seeing a big renewal of identity-based rightisms, a new generation of radical right-wing parties,” sums up Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher at IRIS (l'Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques). The leaders of these parties manage to avoid being branded “extremists” and remain on the edge of what democratic elements of society and the law consider a yellow line. These “right-wing populists”, like their left-wing counterparts, prefer direct to representative democracy, denouncing elites who they say are out of touch with reality, self-propagating, corrupted by cosmopolitanism and globalisation.

They espouse a democracy of opinion that turns public sentiment into law. The people, they claim, know the elites haven’t experienced or grasped anything. Brussels is their bête noire. They are xenophobes to boot, seeking to reconstitute an ethnic identity, inveighing against multicultural society and, above all, Islam. In the Netherlands, historically a land of tolerance, the backlash is seen in the rise of the “anti-Islam” party: Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) could well come out on top in the general elections on 9 June. Down in Italy, Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (Northern League) campaigns on the rejection of the other: initially southern Italians, now immigrants. In the regional elections on 28 March it looks poised to win Veneto, maybe Piedmont, and become the leading right-wing party in the north of the country, ahead of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party.

Traditional far right becoming marginalized

But the “traditional” far right no longer has much traction in the West. It’s a matter of image and legislation: in a number of countries, by dint of laws against negationism, anti-Semitism and racism, taking up the banner of historical Fascism leads to a dead end. In the United Kingdom, to be sure, the xenophobic British National Party (BNP) has established itself locally and now claims two MEPs. In Greece, moreover, the no less racist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) is now surfing the wave of the protest vote with 15 MEPs.

But none of these parties can be accepted as partners in government. "In Western Europe,” notes Jean-Yves Camus, “today’s far-right parties are moving away from the usual reference to Fascism and interbellum authoritarian regimes. Traditional right-wing extremists, for their part, are becoming marginalised cultures, a noise in society rather than a political reality, like the neo-Nazi party (NPD) in Germany.”

Alpine populism is the prototype

Mr Camus elaborated a theory of “Alpine populism” back in the late 1990s. That was when Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) teamed up with the country’s conservatives, Christoph Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party (SVP) took off in Switzerland, and the Lega Nord joined Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy. “In their discourse,” explains Camus, “the three parties converge: on the fringes of Central Europe, this Alpine core conveys memories of the Ottoman threat, a fantasy Islam and the spectre of the War in Yugoslavia, the source of waves of immigration."

Alpine populism is the prototype of the new populist right in Western Europe. A readily exploitable event has since been added: the 9/11 attacks and the Islamophobia they have now and then engendered. Switzerland has just voted by referendum to ban the building of new minarets, inspired by the “anti-minarets” regulations in two Austrian Länder, Vorarlberg and Carinthia. Up in Scandinavia, the rhetoric about the danger of Islam and Muslim immigrants has proved effective: since 2001, the Danish People’s Party (DF) has been an indispensable buttress to the liberal-conservative government; the Progress Party (FrP) is the second-biggest party in Norway; and the Sweden Democrats (SD) could make it into parliament this autumn.