The rise of right-wing politics in Europe comes with a feminine touch

Pat MurphyGreece’s July 23 election was inconclusive. Although the conservative People’s Party won the most seats, it fell slightly short of expectations. Even with prospective coalition partners, it would be around a half-dozen seats shy of a majority. So chances are that the country will go to the polls again before yearend, which would be its sixth election in eight years.

That said, there are suggestions of a European drift towards the right. And it’s not confined to the southern part of the continent.

Italy’s election of Giorgia Meloni last autumn is perhaps the most spectacular example of this drift. As the country’s first female prime minister, you might have expected some affirmative nods from progressive quarters. Instead, her victory was characterized as akin to the second coming of Benito Mussolini’s fascists. Meloni is, we are told, “far-right.”

right-wing Europe

Photo by Nick Fewings

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And up north in Scandinavia, there’s the ascent of the Sweden Democrats. From 5.7 percent of the vote in 2010, they rose to 20.5 percent in 2022, which made them the second largest party in Sweden’s multi-party universe.

Because of their unsavoury antecedents and outspoken opposition to official orthodoxy on immigration, multiculturalism and crime, the establishment preference is to consign the Sweden Democrats to pariah status. In effect, render them political untouchables.

But that’s become harder. And after the inevitable post-election negotiations, a significant crack appeared in the establishment wall. Three parties came together to form a centre-right government which – lacking enough seats of its own – depends on support from the Sweden Democrats. The price of this support was a written agreement committing the new government to policy changes in immigration and criminal justice.

Then Finland’s election this April saw the Finns Party – another “far-right” untouchable – finish second. As a result, the party’s leader – a woman named Riikka Purra – is now deputy prime minister/finance minister in the new coalition government.

It’s worth noting the prominent role of women in all this. To quote Nicholas Farrell’s recent Spectator article: “Many of these insurgent and ascendant parties are led, or part-led, by members of what used to be called the fairer sex. The face of the new European right is, increasingly, feminine.” In addition to Meloni and Purra, Farrell cites Alice Weidel, the co-leader of Germany’s AfD, and Spain’s Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who he describes as the “guiding force” of the People’s Party.

Stereotypes of right-wing women often cast them as conventionally-minded conformists who stepped out of a 1950s family tableau. But Weidel is a lesbian with a Sri Lankan partner and two adopted children. Meloni, meanwhile, came from a broken home and isn’t married to the father of her child.

One of the descriptors generally applied to Europe’s new right wing is “nationalist,” and it’s not meant as a compliment. However, nationalism hasn’t always been perceived negatively. Indeed, I remember when it was a very respectable term.

In the Canada of not so long ago, many high-profile progressives self-described as nationalists. People like former finance minister Walter Gordon, journalist Peter C. Newman and the luminaries gathered around the Committee for an Independent Canada and the Council of Canadians were proud to be known as nationalists. They campaigned for Canadian economic and cultural independence. The desire to assert, promote and preserve a distinct group identity was seen as a natural, even virtuous, thing.

Historically, the concept of nation is rooted in the idea of tribe, one of the oldest relationship models there is. Based on shared history, culture, values and language, it promotes a sense of kinship and social cohesion. For countless millions around the world, it’s integral to their sense of identity. It makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Yes, nationalism can certainly be a source of conflict. But strongly identifying with your own country doesn’t necessarily make you a potential invader of others. The Swiss have managed to avoid that temptation for centuries.

Then there’s the issue of multiculturalism.

While it has acquired the status of a secular religion in Canada (outside Quebec), multiculturalism isn’t equally sacrosanct across Europe. Some countries aren’t particularly keen on the idea. No doubt part of this is down to xenophobia, but not necessarily all of it can be dismissed as such. It’s feasible to respect other cultures, visit them and learn from them while still wanting home to feel familiar rather than foreign.

Canadians may be committed to the ideal of a “post-national” state, but not all Europeans are.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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