Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.
PARIS — Rooting for Russian President Vladimir Putin may have tarnished Europe’s right-wing populist leaders for now, but it’s far too soon to count them out.
Many of Putin’s erstwhile admirers on the nationalist, anti-immigration European right have rushed to distance themselves from his invasion of Ukraine. Sensing a wave of public sympathy for the country, some of the fiercest opponents of admitting refugees from Syria and Afghanistan now opportunistically roll out the welcome mat for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Yet the mood in Europe could still easily turn to fuel a new wave of populism once the cost of sanctions against Russia starts biting at home, sending energy and food prices soaring in Europe.
Let’s remember France’s gilets jaunes movement — the leaderless yellow jackets who blockaded roads around the country and wreaked violent havoc for months in a grassroots revolt against higher gas prices. That movement had ignited when diesel prices reached €1.53 a liter in October 2018 after a carbon tax hike, hitting the pockets of millions who depend on their cars to get to work, go shopping or take their kids to school.
Since Russian tanks moved into Ukraine, diesel prices have already rocketed to over €2 a liter in France, and worse is still to come. Electricity and natural gas bills have soared across the Continent, despite governments’ efforts to cushion the blow to poorer households.
And it’s not just energy either — bread and meat prices are also rising as the war curtails both Russian and Ukrainian exports of wheat and corn, threatening the livelihoods of European farmers and families. People may blame Putin now, but in the coming months, they may easily turn against their own governments.
This cost-of-living fallout will likely come too late to rescue the presidential bids of France’s far-right rivals, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, who have both suffered collateral damage from Putin’s brutal bombardment of Ukrainian cities. Ahead of the first round of voting on April 10, both candidates are squirming to justify their past praise of the Russian leader and struggling to find an angle of attack against centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s statesmanlike handling of the crisis.
Among his opponents, Le Pen has demonstrated the sharpest political instincts thus far by whipping her European Parliament members to vote in favor of a tough resolution condemning the invasion, while also insisting that she will not support any sanction against Moscow that raises living costs for the French people. Seizing oligarchs’ yachts? Yes. But boycotting Russian energy? No.
The biggest blow to the extreme right, however, is that the war has largely pushed its warnings of “uncontrolled mass immigration” and unsubstantiated claims about a “great replacement” of native French people by Muslim migrants out of the headlines.
Moreover, both Zemmour and radical leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s calls for France to leave NATO and declare itself non-aligned — and Le Pen’s for Paris to withdraw from the alliance’s integrated military command, as President Charles de Gaulle did in 1966 — have found little support in a crisis where even the French feel safer with transatlantic allies and European Union partners.
Elsewhere in Europe, politicians who projected themselves as Putin’s sovereigntist soulmates, and accepted money, publicity and covert social media help from his propaganda machine, have mostly condemned Russia’s invasion of an independent sovereign neighbor, even if several have sought to blame NATO for seeking to expand too far.
Take Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s hard-right League party, who once flooded Twitter with pictures of himself and Putin, and closed Italy’s ports to asylum seekers rescued at sea. The populist politician was recently publicly shamed when he showed up to take selfies welcoming refugees at a small Polish town at the Ukrainian border, only to have the local mayor present him with a Putin T-shirt.
In many European countries, far-right parties that start out as radical protest movements against globalization, immigration, LGBTQ+ rights and social dislocation lose out when they compromise their hardline principles to enter government as junior partners, or simply try to make themselves more electable. More extreme rivals rapidly emerge to grab their voters and eat their lunch.
There is something almost mechanical about it all. Zemmour’s sudden rise was a consequence of Le Pen’s quest for respectability. And public support for the League has cratered in Italy since Salvini pulled a series of U-turns to bring his party into the pro-European mainstream, with the post-fascist Brothers of Italy overtaking them as the new, harder face of the country’s far-right. In Austria, two rival extreme-right parties duked it out for 20 years, in the Netherlands for a decade.
During the Cold War, French writer François Mauriac cynically made the observation, “I love Germany so much that I’m delighted there are two of them.”
It’s tempting to draw comfort from the seeming inevitability of the far right’s division, which has allowed mainstream political forces to prevail in Europe time and time again — even in the aftermath of the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Yet it would be wrong to count on any such Newtonian law of political gravity to preserve the EU’s newfound unity and solidarity from the coming economic and social tempest unleashed by this war.
Holding European societies together if gasoline hits €3 a liter; bread, pasta and meat prices take off; and working-class families cannot afford to heat and light their homes will put mainstream leaders to the test. Unless we do much more to fight widening social inequality, the short-term “Putin effect” discrediting Europe’s right-wing nationalists may yet prove be a prelude to a populist tsunami.