BRUSSELS—For Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party, her moment of triumph came at the end of a bumpy couple of weeks. First the triumph: In last weekend’s elections for the European Union Parliament, Le Pen’s party gained greater ground over that of the neoliberal President Emmanuel Macron, winning some 24 percent of the French vote to 21 percent for Macron’s La République en Marche party.
In truth, it was something of a rerun for Le Pen, whose party won around the same percentage in the EU parliamentary elections of 2014. But this time was different. The embattled Macron had branded the contest as something of a referendum on himself, having had to face off against Le Pen in a 2017 run-off that determined who would be France’s next president. So branded, this year’s EU elections became an important symbolic contest between the far right, with its anti-migrant and anti-Muslim vitriol, and the pro-multilateral and democratic values of people on the center-left and center-right. Those centers did not hold.
All told, the continent’s right-wing populist and nationalist parties won a total of around 187 seats in the EU Parliament—not a majority, but enough to cause trouble in the body’s internal workings. With those parties collectively gaining about an additional 5 percent of the parliament’s seats from the previous contest, it wasn’t quite the far-right blowout that had been predicted, but is still troubling evidence of the rise of Europe’s reactionary right. (Thanks to higher overall turnout than usual, sharp social media skills, appealing candidates, and the terror of the climate crisis, the Green parties made significant gains, as well, while the long-established center-right and center-left parties lost significant ground. Politico has a breakdown here.)
But even as opinion polls in France, in the weeks leading up to the election, suggested a likely RN victory (projections showed Le Pen’s party winning one or two more seats than Macron’s), the final days of the campaign for Le Pen’s parliamentary candidates had their difficult moments.
On May 14, a photograph of Le Pen making the “white power” sign with her hand—a gesture that resembles the ordinary “OK” sign, once used by some on the right as a way to troll opponents, but now taken up more earnestly by far-right figures—began circulating on Twitter. It showed Le Pen with Ruuben Kaalep, a reportedneo-Nazi and member of Estonia’s national parliament, in a selfie that was originally posted to Kaalep’s Facebook page. Le Pen, who has gone to great pains to distance herself from the anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism that defined her party—then known as the Front National—under nearly four decades of leadership by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, claimed that she hadn’t known what the gesture meant, and had made it at Kaalep’s request. (True or not, she surely knew that Kaalep speaks admiringly of the Nazis.) Even The New York Times took noteof Le Pen’s selfie-gate.
Then last week Steve Bannon, apparently without an invitation, came to town to set up shop in Paris at the Hotel Bristol. You might think Marine Le Pen would have been delighted to see her old pal, with whom she was only too happy to share a stage just months ago. But Bannon’s chumminess has become something of a liability, seeing as she’s a French nationalist and he’s an American who, after being banished from Trump World for some intemperate comments about the president’s Number One Son, figured he could just bigfoot it onto the European neo-fascist scene, gathering wisdom-hungry hate-mongers about his feet, dispensing messaging advice and data analytics while living high on the hog in some of the Continent’s finest hotels.
Last year, Bannon announced to great fanfare his creation of a think-tankish entity called The Movement, conceived to serve as a point of convergence for all of the far-right parties of Europe, through which he hoped to organize them as bloc if they were to win a significant number of seats in the EU Parliamentary elections. The idea was that The Movement would serve as a sort of one-stop-shopping consulting enterprise, built as a nonprofit entity, that would provide advice on messaging and targeting data for the campaigns of the radical-right candidates Bannon planned to organize.
But Bannon didn’t do his homework, relying instead on his self-promoted reputation as the genius who got Trump elected, and a worldview shaped by amateur historians. First, The Guardian reported last November on the many ways in which Bannon’s imagined enterprise would violate election-finance laws governing the most of those campaigns at the national level, facts that seem to have taken him by surprise when presented to him by the newspaper. Next, he failed to take into account the optics of a foreigner from across the ocean presenting himself as the pivotal big man in the politics of nationalist parties. It was only natural that, at least in public view, many of these nationalist leaders would want to distance themselves from him as the elections grew closer.
None of that, however, could keep Bannon away from Europe, eager to claim credit for the right’s rising fortunes. In the course of that week, his praise for Le Pen cost the French populist precious air time under France’s equal-time laws, seeing as how his off-the-cuff riffs in appearances on local and national news programs were seen as campaign boosterism to be charged against her party’s ledger in the EU Parliament campaign.
Despite Bannon’s inflated view of himself as a kingmaker, he does deserve a share of the credit for the right’s strong showing in the EU campaigns. And given the apparent need for some far-right politicians to keep him at arm’s length in public view, not to mention the near-impossibility of tracing such in-kind contributions as advice delivered in a five-star hospitality suite, we may never know just how big or small a share of that credit he deserves.
For example, even after Le Pen publicly dismissed the notion that Bannon had any role in her party’s EU parliamentary campaign, a reporter for Le Parisien saw a pair of Le Pen’s deputies, Jérôme Rivière and Nicolas Lesage,exit Bannon’s suite at the Bristol.
"These are exchange sessions, not advice,” Rivière, who went on to win a seat in the EU Parliament, told Le Parisien reporters Aurélie Rossignol and Alexandre Sulzer about his tête-à-tête with Bannon.“He tells us about his American campaign and we draw [from that] what interests us,” Rivière said.
Lesage, a former spokesperson for the party, said his was merely a social visit with Bannon. “We did not talk about anything in particular,” he told Le Parisien.
LAST YEAR, BANNON began assembling the radical right leaders of Europe in small gatherings held around dinner tables in Europe’s finest hotels, as shown in the recently released documentary, The Brink. Always on hand, it seemed, was Nigel Farage, whose UKIP party was the force behind the 2016 Brexit referendum, with an assist, it seems, from Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced (and now, not quite defunct) data-mining company of which Bannon was an executive vice president at the time. It was Brexit—the term for the U.K.’s planned exit from the European Union—that really kicked into gear the right-wing effort to disaggregate the EU.
However, now that the yet-to-be-executed Brexit has turned out to be quite a wreck for the British people, the other European right-wing nationalist populist leaders have backed away from calling for their respective nations’ exit from the EU, instead promising to roll back or stall EU migration policies. (Nevertheless, back in the Britain, Farage’s new Brexit Party won the majority of the U.K.’s seats in the European Parliament. In the U.K., the campaign proceeded with little or no planning, since Britain was expected to have already left the EU by then. The last extension was made after Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to arrive at a Brexit deal with the EU by an April 12 deadline, leaving a month and change for Britain’s parties to launch campaigns. Meanwhile, the political fallout from repeated rejections of May’s EU exit plans by Britain’s parliament left both the major parties, Conservative and Labour, in disarray, and unsuited to running effective campaigns against the well-funded Farage, who seems to have little else to do with his time.)
While Bannon’s coalition-of-the-moment idea may have failed to come together as a Bannon-branded project, that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea for his compatriots. In fact, it was so good that after Bannon’s fumble, Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right La Ligua party, picked that ball right up, triumphantly convening a May 19 gathering of Europe’s radical right-wing leaders. It was almost what a group photo of Bannon’s “The Movement” coalition would have looked like, minus the appearance of Bannon in the picture. (Also absent was Nigel Farage—whose party has refused to rule out joining Salvini’s coalition, perhaps calculating it safer to do so after it’s seated. But had he made the trip to Italy, Farage might have avoided that unfortunate encounter with a milkshake.)
Salvini’s party, La Liga, won a plurality of Italy’s vote for EU Parliament representation, with 34 percent, a significant win. Salvini, who hopes to assemble a 70-seat coalition of various far-right delegations, is said to be close to Bannon.
Yet, while Farage’s hastily-concocted Brexit Party may have come in first among Britain’s parties in the EU parliamentary election, the group of U.K. parties that represent constituencies that wish to stay in the EU collectively garnered more votes in the contest, which saw lower turnout than that of France or Germany. Of the latter, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party increased its national vote-share to 11 percent, down from the more robust 12.6 percent showing it received in Germany’s national parliamentary elections in 2017.
And Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, another Islamophobic Bannon confederate, couldn’t even get himself elected, never mind the rest of the slate for his Freedom Party, which lost all of its four seats—but three of those will be filled by candidates from the equally xenophobic, new-on-the-scene Forum for Democracy Party, led by the more attractive white identitarian ideologue, Thierry Baudet.
Then there’s the stunning case of the Vlaams Belang party, a Flemish identitarian party in Belgium with links to neo-Nazi figures, which increased its share of the vote in the country’s Flemish-speaking areas by 12.6 points, using a social media strategy targeting young men. (In Belgium, the EU vote coincided with local and federal elections.) The brain behind that strategy is Bart Claes, who looked to the two big previous campaigns bearing the Bannon brand. From Politico:
For inspiration, Claes turned to Brexit and the Trump campaign. “For some time I was really obsessed about these campaigns,” Claes told POLITICO, adding that he had devoured books and documentaries on how these U.K. and U.S. political shocks were delivered to study their potential application in Flanders.
Which kind of illustrates a point that Bannon made in an interview with Le Parisien: “Trump would not have been elected president without Brexit,” Bannon told reporter Alexandre Sulzer. “It created momentum.”
“If the populists make up more than 30 percent in the European [Parliament],” Bannon continued, “this will [build] momentum that will help Trump for the 2020 campaign.”
So, while believers in liberal values are breathing a sign of relief that the right didn’t quite hit that 30-percent number (far-right and Euroskeptic parties appear to have garnered more like 25 percent), we’d be well-advised not to get too comfortable. Wherever it takes place in the world, each contest that injects far-right rhetoric and ideology into an election campaign is a beta-test for the next one, and meanwhile spreads the virus. Lessons will be learned from this election—the second-largest democratic voting exercise in the world—will be applied to Trump’s campaign and others around the world.
Yes, the success of the Greens gives us hope for the future of the planet, as does the success of the socialist Frans Timmermans, who led his party to victory in the Netherlands. But the diminishment of the major parties has created a profound disruption and fragmentation in the make-up of the parliament itself, and within the parties. This could ultimately settle out to be a correction to the establishment’s course, or it could be disasterously destabilizing to the power balance on the continent. Among those that won big is the Fidesz party of Hungary’s dictatorial leader, Viktor Orbán. He used to ally his party with the large parties of the center-right. If he decides instead to join in an alliance with Salvini and company, the right becomes that much stronger within that body.
Those more hopeful than I point to the fact that there is much on which right-wing parties disagree with each other, especially if you throw in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which, unlike many of the other right-wing groups, is hostile to Putin and Russia. Then there are the often bombastic personalities of these parties’ leaders, all of them vying for the most media attention.
In addition, some of these far-right figures seem to have access to a steady stream of money. Bannon told Le Parisien that his project—presumably including the cost of the luxury suites, the private plane, the “gladiator school” he’s building in an Italian monastery, not to mention whatever social-visit niceties he’s dispensing to his European pals on election eve—is self-funded. Yet he seems to know where his favorite candidates can find funding streams; before Farage slapped together the Brexit party, Bannon said he’d find funding for a organization to be fronted by Farage. Le Pen herself has said that she turns to Bannon for fundraising advice. “In the United States," Le Pen told FranceInfo, "they have a whole series of fundraising methods to be able to finance themselves (...) through social networks…”Bannon told Le Parisen that his advice is all about finding the small donors.
Just before the voting started, Bannon hopped over to Kazahkstan for the Eurasian Media Forum, where he framed his vision, hatched in the rarified trappings of the wealthy, as a boon to working people. Brussels Express reported Bannon’s comments:
In Europe by Sunday night, early morning it’ll become clear when the Populist Nationalist Sovereignty movement takes charge and starts the much-needed restructuring of the rules-based order to the benefit of the middle-class and working class people throughout the world.
The far right may not yet have the tool it would like to use for that restructuring: a sledge hammer. In the meantime, its leaders will see what they can do with a tool chest full of monkey-wrenches, poised to be thrown into the works.
This article has been updated.