Europe's Darkening Hour? Populist Movement Smacks of Fascist Past

Marine Le Pen, left, France's National Front political party leader, kisses Netherland's Geert Wilders, president of the Party for Freedom, during the far-right French party's congress in Lyon, France November 29, 2014. Reuters

Updated | "Fascism is a religion," wrote Benito Mussolini, in his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism. "The twentieth century will be known in history as the century of Fascism."

But what will the 21st century be known as? The rise of the anti-elite? Or the century of economic decay that lead to fascism?

'Soft Side' of Fascism

When Donald Trump was elected, one of his many congratulatory tweets came from Marine Le Pen, the media-savvy, populist right wing leader of France's National Front, who sees a kindred spirit in the mogul who supposedly stands for the common man. "Congratulations to the new American president and the free American people," wrote Le Pen, a 49-year old attorney and the daughter of the party's founder, Jean-Marie.

It was no coincidence that the woman who had supported "anything but Clinton" was overjoyed by the electoral turnout. Her widest appeal is with what she calls "ordinary French citizens." Not long after Trump's victory, French television outlets reported that some of his team flew to France to meet with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine's 26-year old niece. If true, this is worrying. Marion is blonde and glamorous, and increasingly popular in the party—she was the youngest MP elected in French history. What did the Americans want with her? All we know is that she agreed to collaborate with Trump chief strategist and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon.

Marion did not specify how or what she might do, but the indication was a plan to lead France's right to the kind of stunning anti-elite success seen in America. Was the election of Trump a promising sign for her aunt's own bid to become president? What once seemed a joke to many—a blatant bigot running a country which is defined by liberty and fraternity—is now perhaps frighteningly possible.

Le Pen is the soft side of European fascism. While loathed by Left Bank intellectuals, she is admittedly intelligent, gives great soundbites, and even her enemies begrudgingly admit she possesses a certain kind of chilling charisma.

"What happened last night was not the end of the world but the end of a world. Americans have given themselves the president they chose and not one that the establishment wanted rubber-stamped," she cooed to her beloved supporters, the far-right French who dream of France's former glory.

In April 2017, the French will begin voting for a new leader. In France, the president has even stronger executive powers than the U.S. This includes the authority to send the country to war without parliamentary approval. It is unlikely that Le Pen would march to war with Muslims, but the National Front policies are extreme. They include withdrawal from the EU and the euro; protecting the French economy and giving priority to French citizens; "reasserting" French cultural identity; ending mass immigration and taking a hard stance on law and order. And she's big on ending the "Islamification" as she calls it, of France.

Sound familiar?

Populists Rise Across Europe

Polls currently show Le Pen making it past the first round to the May run-off among the top two vote-getters, but then being defeated by the conservative candidate, widely expected to be former prime minister Alain Juppe. Still, even if she does not win, the key message is clear: the U.S. victory has been a tremendous boost to populist parties across Europe. They are popular because of the discontent springing from declining wages, migration of European industries, and the failure to sustain economic growth as well as the migrant crisis across Europe.

"The rise of xenophobia across Europe is deeply worrying," says Roland Rudd, a founder and chairman of Finsbury, the communications group, and chairman of Open Britain, a campaign to keep Britain open to trade. "We must understand why this is happening—the 2008 financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and globalization have created a real level of economic insecurity for many people on low incomes," he says. "History shows economic crises always lead to a shift towards political extremes."

Nigel Farage Trump
Nigel Farage arrives at Republican president-elect Donald Trump's Trump Tower, New York, November 12. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

The French often say that bad things happen in threes—and the shock of the Brexit, followed by Trump's victory sent waves of fear throughout the liberal elite. What next? Europe is sensitive to the rise of fascism given how quickly the misery of the severe economic crises of the 1930s morphed into nationalism. Is that where we are now?

"The boundaries of reason disappeared with Brexit. The main lesson for us in France is that Marine Le Pen can win," conservative former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told RTL radio. It was a view shared by fellow former premier Dominique de Villepin.

Across Europe, there is a kind of awakening. In Austria, where elections will take place in December, Norbert Hofer and his Eurosceptic Freedom Party gained 49.7 percent of the vote with rhetoric that is largely anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant. Hofer even goes as far to wear a blue cornflower on his lapel, which was worn by Austrian Nazis in the 1930s as a secret symbol after their party was banned.

In Hungary, the twice-elected social conservative and Europe-skeptic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the lead in rallying the right wing last year when he roared with Trump-like enthusiasm about building a razor-wire fence and using water cannons to block immigrants. Orbán has locked down his country with a zeal that would make Vladimir Putin proud: hindering free press, NGOs and the judiciary. Despite this, he is considered by many to be one of the most influential leaders in the European Union. Politico went as far as to call him the "talisman for Europe's mainstream right."

Holland could also go the way of a Trump-like tornado in their election next March. The country has long been wrought with problems stemming from an inability to assimilate its growing Muslim population. Geert Wilder from The Party for Freedom went as far as to call the American election a historic victory: "A revolution! We will also give our country back to the Dutch!"

In the UK, the father of Brexit, Nigel Farage of the UKIP Party, grandly said he was handing over the "mantle" to Trump. He did not specify which mantle but it is not hard to work out. Farage skipped Remembrance Day—a solemn holiday in Britain—to visit the new U.S. president.

Comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, addresses supporters in Rome May 23, 2014. Reuters

And in Italy, the birthplace of fascism in Europe, there are potential causes for deep concern. In early December, a constitutional referendum will take place, called by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to ask if Italians approve of reforms upon which he has staked his career. Renzi has said he will resign if he does not win; meanwhile the anti-establishment Five Star Movement headed by Beppe Grillo is leading in the polls.

Fundamental Differences in Eras

Still, there are some fundamental differences between what is happening today and the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s. For starters, most political parties in Europe do not have paramilitary wings (except the Golden Dawn in Greece). In the Weimar Republic, even centrist parties had armed groups affiliated with them.

Michael Diedring of the European Council on Refugees and Exile recently said that while the comparisons are exaggerations, we still must remain vigilant to the parallels.

"We see an increase in certain sectors of xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Some of these things are starting to bubble up." Yet, voices at the political extreme, he said, is nothing new and can even be "helpful in order to foster dialogue."

We still have dialogue, so we are not back in 1936 yet. But a sigh of relief would be premature. It is important to remember that the early roots of European fascism—from Franco's Falange movement to Romania under Antonescu or the Arrow Cross in Hungary—were early on, founded on the principles of national unity.

The Italians wanted to create a new Roman Empire. It doesn't sound so far off from Trump's own vision for America.

This story has been updated to add sourcing to the claim that members of Trump's team flew to France to meet with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen