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European Conservative Parties Are Out of Ideas, but Absorbing the Far Right Isn’t the Answer

European conservatism is in crisis. Traditional centre-right parties are increasingly facing challenges from their right by parties with more energy and extreme proposals for addressing the multitude of crises facing the continent. While centre-right parties may not have much in the way of ideas to resolve Europe’s polycrisis, they do still know how to fight for power. Their instinctive drive for self-preservation means conservatives are radicalising, particularly over issues of race, in order to cut off their insurgent rivals.

Take France, where the formerly dominant Les Républicains (LR) party has entered a death spiral, with its last presidential candidate, Valerie Pécresse, failing to reach even the 5% vote threshold required to get her deposit back. LR’s response was to elect as leader Éric Ciotti, a far-rightist who once declared that the “great replacement” – a fascist conspiracy theory claiming there is a deliberate attempt to demographically annihilate white Europeans – was a priority of national importance. This sort of discourse was until recently confined to figures in the National Rally party (previously the National Front).

Emmanuel Macron has also embraced the language of the radical right as he attempts to pacify what he perceives to be a groundswell of support for authoritarian racism in France. Following a series of violent killings across the country, the French president invoked the spectre of “decivilisation”. After the unrest that followed the police shooting of a teenager, he reprised this, talking up a “crisis of civilisation” and “social depravity”.

The idea of decivilisation is of a piece with the great replacement. The precise origin of the term is unknown, but Renaud Camus, the French fascist writer and originator of the great replacement theory, also wrote a book titled Decivilisation, about how social equality degenerated western culture. Some offhand comments should not be taken as evidence that Macron is a committed white nationalist, but these are the ideological waters into which the president is dipping his toes.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is beginning to break through, winning a district in the state of Thuringia in June. In July, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Friedrich Merz, endorsed local coalitions between the CDU and AfD. He backpedalled after a widespread outcry, but the incident is illustrative.

Hans-Georg Maaßen, former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, at a meeting of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) district associations in Suhl, Germany, 30 April 2021.

As well as the crumbling barrier between centre-right conservatives and the far right, there are signs of a brewing radicalisation inside the CDU. In January this year, Hans-Georg Maaßen – the former head of Germany’s intelligence agency and a CDU candidate in Thuringia in the 2021 general election – claimed that the dominant force in German politics was “eliminatory racism against whites”. He directly invoked the great replacement theory, saying he rejected “ideological positions that demand the extinction of … those with white skin colour through mass immigration”. Maaßen remains a member of the CDU, though a botched attempt to expel him was made, and he chairs a grassroots organisation that explicitly aims to radicalise the party.

Spain’s conservative party is also ripe for radicalisation, actively aiding and abetting the far right’s ascent. Although the right of the People’s party (PP) currently refrains from open racism, the prominence of its regional president in Madrid, the rightwing Isabel Díaz Ayuso, does not bode well

Ayuso has said in the past that the PP and the far-right Vox party agree on many fundamental issues, and many are touting her as the logical choice for the next party leader. Equally concerning are the local coalition deals between the PP and Vox. The pact between the parties has just seen the great replacement proponent Gabriel Le Senne become the president of the Balearic parliament.

These sorts of stories are now familiar across Europe. From Greece, where the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won the 2023 election promising a wall to prevent an “organised invasion of illegal migrants”, to Scandinavia, where the Finnish and Swedish right are in coalition with far-right parties.

There is a reason the great replacement is a recurring theme throughout this shift in the European right. Conservatism’s default response to social problems is to individualise them and attribute the responsibility for various issues to those who experience them. This individualistic framing doesn’t wash any more as Europe faces what the historian Adam Tooze refers to as a polycrisis. These multiple interlocking crises are so obviously structural that it would be ridiculous to attribute their effects to individual moral failing.

Conservatives are generally uncomfortable attributing structural causes to problems, especially when so many crises are tied to the economic model they have spent decades championing. This is where the great replacement comes in. As mendacious and deranged as it is, it provides a structural explanation for various aspects of the polycrisis, and comes with in-built agonism for politicians to exploit.

Climate crisis? It’s not fossil fuels, it’s overpopulation. Economic crisis? It’s not austerity and corporate power depriving citizens of stable work and functioning services – it’s the immigrants. Crime and social alienation? It’s not poverty and deprivation, instead immigrants are waging war against you and have destroyed the halcyon days of a cohesive white culture.

Conservatives will likely continue to move according to the gravitational pull of their parties to the right in order to prevent their own collapse. If they cannot formulate their own remedies and structural explanations for the crisis they helped cause, the lazy and cynical will continue to feel the allure of a theory such as the great replacement.

It lets them off the hook for the failures of the world they helped build and allows them to present as populists while they do so. In fits and starts, European conservatism is absorbing the far right. We can expect to hear a lot more about the great replacement.

Source : The Guardian