Unhappy Political Families: Why Europe's Mainstream Parties are Faltering

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Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande at the European Union Heads of State Summit, Brussels, Belgium, December 17, 2015. 

All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy didn’t have European political parties in mind when he wrote those famous opening sentences of Anna Karenina, but his words remain remarkably apt as a description of the Old World’s increasingly dysfunctional political families. Recent elections in France, Spain, and the U.K. have weakened some traditional parties of government, encouraged insurgencies, and even threatened to blow up venerable party systems. Not even Germany has escaped Europe’s latest seismic tremors entirely unscathed.

Start with France. As I wrote here two weeks ago, the big news is the rapid rise of the extreme right-wing Front National. Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, who took over the party from her father in 2011, the FN has improved its performance with each new election. In this November’s regional contest, Mme Le Pen finally made good on her boast that hers is now “the leading party in France.” With just over 28 percent of the electorate, she outpolled both of her main rivals, President François Hollande’s Socialists and former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans.

Equally important, the election laid bare the deep divisions that bedevil France’s two mainstream parties. Sarkozy’s Republicans have long been at odds about how best to counter the threat of the FN. Sarkozy rose to political prominence by attempting to outdo the FN at its own game: he railed about “insecurity” (coded language for crime committed by minorities) and promised to crack down on immigration. At first these tactics seemed to pay off, allowing Sarkozy to win the 2007 presidential race handily. After his presidency foundered on the shoals of economic crisis, however, opposition began to emerge within his own party. Following his loss to Hollande in the 2012 presidential election, potential rivals, including two former prime ministers, briefly seized control of the party apparatus and ousted Sarkozy’s designated successor, Jean-François Copé, in the wake of a campaign financing scandal. But after a two-year political hiatus Sarkozy returned to the fray and again insisted that the best way to combat the FN was to turn the party even more sharply to the right on questions of security, immigration, and national identity.

The Republicans’ worse-than-disappointing showing in the first round of the regional elections demonstrated the bankruptcy of this strategy. Voters susceptible to the “FN-lite” appeal were encouraged by Le Pen to “prefer the original to the copy,” while moderates, dismayed by Sarkozy’s hard right turn, abstained. In several regions Republican candidates won in the second and final round of voting only because first-round abstainers turned out to block the FN and left-wing voters rallied to Republican candidates after the Socialists withdrew their ticket. One moderate Republican, Xavier Bertrand, who won the regional presidency in Nord-Pas de Calais, acknowledged that the campaign had “changed his vision of politics,” while Christian Estrosi, a longtime backer of Sarkozy who won another regional presidency in southeastern France, openly declared that with the former president back at the helm the party was on a course for disaster. A younger challenger, Bruno Lemaire, proclaimed that it was time for “a generational change,” and the vote count did indeed show that the Republicans’ had done best among older voters while the FN had made great inroads among the young. Despite the urgent need to appeal to youth, Sarkozy lost no time expelling one of his younger challengers, Nathalie-Kosciusko Morizet, from a leadership position to which he himself had appointed her. And yet another former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, hinted that the threat of the FN had become so dire that the only solution was for Socialists and Republicans to cooperate in a union sacrée aimed squarely at solving France’s persistent unemployment problem—a proposal hardly intended to endear him to Sarkozy, who had steadfastly opposed earlier calls for a “republican front” to bar the FN from power at the regional level.

Meanwhile, on the left, the fissures in the Socialist Party are even more unmistakable. Every move Hollande has made since his election in 2012 has alienated his party’s left wing. He cut taxes paid by corporations and shifted the burden to individuals. He dismissed left-leaning ministers from his government, replaced his first prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, with the more “business-friendly” Manuel Valls, and installed the neoliberal supply-sider Emmanuel Macron as minister of the economy. What may finally shatter the party, however, is a move that was both completely unexpected and totally unnecessary. Following the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, Hollande told an extraordinary joint session of the National Assembly and Senate that he was prepared to amend the constitution to allow the stripping of French nationality from any dual national found to be involved in terrorist activity, even if that person was born on French soil. Never mind that most French nationals involved in terrorism do not have dual nationality and cannot therefore be stripped of their French citizenship (under international law). Never mind that the Socialist interior minister has said that the measure will do nothing to impede terrorism. Never mind that the Socialist justice minister announced that Hollande had changed his mind in the face of intense opposition within the party (was she insubordinate or simply misinformed?). Never mind that the stripping of nationality from the native-born as punishment for crime is a measure that has regularly been proposed by the Front National. As president in 2010, Sarkozy borrowed the idea from his extremist opponents, while Hollande, then secretary-general of the Socialist Party, denounced it as “inimical … to the republican tradition,” and Manuel Valls described it as “ineffective” and referred to the debate on the issue as “nauseating.” Yet now, despite the hue and cry the proposal has sparked on the left, Hollande and Valls are refusing to back down. The French left, never a contented family, has become a truly contentious one.

Turn now to Spain, where this month’s general election produced no clear winner and no obvious path to a viable governing coalition. As in France, two parties—the People’s Party and the Socialists—have dominated Spanish politics since the fall of Franco, but last week it was the unhappy insurgents who filled the headlines. Spain has not one insurgent party but two: Podemos (on the left) and Ciudadanos (on the right). Neither outpolled the two mainstream parties, but Podemos came close to nosing out the second-place Socialists.

The party is led by Pablo Iglesias, a young political scientist who emerged from obscurity to lead a left-wing insurgency that grew out of the Indignados movement, the Spanish counterpart of Occupy Wall Street. The party’s fortunes rose rapidly, and it was often compared to Greece’s Syriza, which rode to power on a wave of opposition to EU-imposed austerity. But when Syriza’s challenge to the so-called Troika failed despite its having won both an election and a referendum, Spanish voters appeared to conclude that Podemos, which was younger and weaker than its Greek counterpart, would also fail. Undaunted, the youthful and energetic Iglesias clawed his way back almost to second place by persuading anyone who would listen that the battle was still worth waging.

Paradoxically, he was aided in his efforts by his equally charismatic opposite number, Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, a more centrist protest party that rose even faster than Podemos (though not quite as high). Although the two men hold opposite positions on many issues (Iglesias describes himself as a Marxist and insists on the need to restore Spain’s sovereignty over its own budget, while Rivera—often described as “the ideal son-in-law”—is a post-nationalist who favors a federalist Europe of open markets for capital and labor), their televised debates drew large audiences and provided a platform for both to denounce the corruption of the two governmental parties.

Meanwhile, as the U.K. struggles to cope with the devastation of heavy rains and widespread flooding, its Labour Party is still seeking its way in the aftermath of the recent parliamentary elections, which saw Ed Miliband’s party dealt a crushing blow. Labour lost its erstwhile Scottish stronghold to the Scottish National Party, depriving the British left of any conceivable path to power in the foreseeable future. Miliband had no choice but to resign, and the party’s rank-and-file availed itself of rule changes he had previously introduced to elect Jeremy Corbyn, a relatively obscure back-bencher, as its new leader. In contrast to the insurgent movements in Spain and France, the British Labour insurgency seems more bent on remaking the party than on gaining power anytime soon

Corbyn’s priorities have left many Labour parliamentarians in despair and disarray. They feel themselves relegated to the margins of national policy debates at a time when the country is faced with making up its mind once and for all about whether it wants in or out of the European Union. A vote on “Brexit” could come sometime in 2016, and Corbyn has yet to make his position clear. Leading the charge for Brexit will be Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, yet another right-wing anti-immigrant populist party that finished third in the 2015 election with 12 percent of the vote—a far smaller share than the FN, Podemos, or Ciudadanos.

Finally, even Germany, the most prosperous of Europe’s countries and the most responsible for troubles elsewhere owing to its unshakeable insistence on austerity, has experienced turmoil of late. If Tolstoy’s happy family exists anywhere in the EU, it has to be in Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party leader and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel have found ways to coexist commodiously in a Grand Coalition of left and right since 2013. But even happy families can become restless, particularly when called upon to receive more than a million guests, many of whom will probably choose to stay permanently in Germany even if the civil war in Syria is brought to an end. Merkel stood up to criticism from within her own party, and particularly from Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who wondered publicly how Germany would pay for the chancellor’s generosity. Her forthright defense of hospitality to the refugees was well-received, however, and she emerged from a recent party congress in firm control. Gabriel was not so lucky. His unwillingness to confront the chancellor on key economic and social issues has steadily eroded his support within the SPD.

Still, François Hollande can only envy Gabriel’s weakness, for even at the end of two difficult years the rotund leader of the SPD left his party congress with the support of 74.3 percent of its members—a number of which Hollande can only dream. Happy families—even restive ones—truly are all alike: they grant their leaders comfortable majorities rather than the grudging votes of confidence that are the best Hollande has been able to eke out in two and a half years as president. And his luck may yet run out before his five-year term ends in 2017.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Marine Le Pen encouraged Republican supporters to "prefer the copy to the original." In fact she encouraged them to "prefer to the original to the copy."

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