British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin sought to take advantage of the disorder that broke out in England in August as fast as he could, saying: “We are on the verge of a very hot race war in this country.” On 11 August, when shops were boarded up and cells crowded, he said: “People like me have warned the political elite ... that their great multicultural experiment was doomed to failure” (1).
The first disturbance began on the Saturday after police shot Mark Duggan, 29, in Tottenham, north London. There followed two more days during which there was disorder in various parts of London and other cities. Those who knew the areas and watched the television footage recognised that the rioters were of every ethnicity, as were the police officers, the shopkeepers defending their property and those involved in the clean-up process. Yet Griffin insisted it was a racial problem: the black community was “desperately sick”; Muslims in the UK had a problem with drugs, he said, and groomed young white girls.
The BNP saw in the riots a chance to re-present itself to a sceptical British public at a time when support has dropped sharply and the party is preoccupied with factional infighting and high-level defections.
Two years ago it had seemed to make a political breakthrough: at the 2009 European elections, the party finally achieved a semblance of electoral respectability, returning its first two members to the European parliament and winning close to a million votes. Meanwhile in France, Griffin’s long-standing ally, the Front National (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, experienced a decline: the FN lost four of its seven MEPs and over half a million votes. Le Pen graciously congratulated his “friends in the BNP” and suggested a potential European nationalist alliance with the party. Griffin and Le Pen had been comrades for decades. They share experiences — physical attacks, accusations of Holocaust denial and convictions for race-hate crimes. Although the media, mainstream politicians and the majority of French and British people found their brand of aggressive nativism vulgar and dangerous, each managed to establish a solid support base and take votes from the traditional parties.
Enter Marine Le Pen
Since Le Pen was replaced by his daughter Marine earlier this year, the FN has increased its poll ratings, with Le Pen Jnr working hard to detoxify the party’s image. Given President Nicolas Sarkozy’s growing unpopularity, she considers herself a serious contender for France’s presidential elections next year.
The changing fortunes of these far-right populists is remarkable. Is it because of differences in leadership style, the presentation of their anti-establishment credentials or shifts in political discourse around immigration and identity?
In Britain, the 2009 European election was Nick Griffin’s greatest success as BNP leader. Griffin was very evident in the broadcast studios during the campaign, appealing to the public to elect “a whistleblower” on the improper activities of the political class. With the slogan “Punish the Pigs”, the party’s election video combined Europhobic outrage and anti-immigrant rhetoric with a sentimental yearning for a time when the UK was a “decent, fair and happy society”. “What’s it coming to,” the voiceover asked, “when you’re made to feel like an unwelcome foreigner in your own country?” (2).
Anticipating a collapse in their traditional support base, the mainstream parties reacted to this audacious populism by stressing the threat from the BNP. Gordon Brown (then prime minister) was facing a leadership crisis and, after a scandal over MPs’ expenses, British public trust in politicians was at an all-time low. Endorsed by celebrities, sports stars and trade unionists, Brown lent his name to an anti-BNP campaign letter calling on the public to “join us in voting for a great Britain” (3). The Church of England directed the public not to vote for a party that encourages “division within communities, especially between people of different faiths or racial background” (4). This did not have the intended effect. Griffin was elected to represent North West England and proclaimed: “The waters of truth and justice and freedom are once again flowing over this country. It’s a great victory: we go on from here” (5).
The victory was short-lived. The BNP failed to win a single seat at last year’s general election and are losing council seats across the country. The media, politicians and grassroots activists have shifted their gaze to the Islamophobic street movement, the English Defence League (EDL). After a recent and bitter leadership challenge that threatened to split the BNP, Griffin was re-elected by less than 10 votes.
In Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Griffin told me he understood the BNP had a way to go if it was to have any meaningful influence in British political life. “The response on the doorstep is generally ‘Well everyone is voting for you’ And then most of them don’t. We’ve got an enormous amount of soft-popular sympathy but it only rarely translates solidly into votes.” Though some polls have indicated that a sanitised nationalist political party — non-violent, non-racist — may attract popular support, this does not seem to aid the BNP directly.
Sarkozy steals FN ground
In France, the situation is quite different. At FN headquarters in suburban Paris, Marine Le Pen told me her party were on their way to becoming more accepted. “Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National were demonised for many years. This demonisation led to a wall around them which prevented the French people from joining the FN. Thanks to changes at the head of the organisation these walls are beginning to crumble.”
She explained why her party had spent years as political outsiders. There was a high point in 2002, when the FN rode a wave of popular antipathy against the French establishment to displace the Parti Socialiste in the presidential run-off. But in the 2007 election the FN dropped: “Le Pen, la fin,” proclaimed Libération (7 June 2007). A further poor showing in the 2008 municipal elections suggested that far-right populism in France was on the wane. In 2009 Jean-Marie Le Pen blamed the poor performance in the European elections on a media boycott, which he claimed shielded the public from hearing voices outside the self-interested political class.
However the main reason may have been Sarkozy’s adoption of staple FN policies: the promotion of a French identity; national preference in work, welfare and public service access; hostility towards low-income immigration; special crime laws for foreign-born migrants. Voters sympathetic to the FN saw Sarkozy as a more viable vehicle for their politics. As Le Pen Jnr put it: “The only thing that weakened the Front National was Sarkozy’s strategy of presenting himself as a kind of double of the FN.” Sarkozy saw that “the French people were turning more and more towards the option of the Front National. He managed to harness the force of that river and divert it to his own advantage.” She laughed. “But now the river has returned to its own bed.”
She understands her father’s failure to capture the political mood. “The FN addressed subjects that were completely taboo”: hostility towards all forms of immigration, the negative aspects of globalisation, which she says are only now being widely understood. “Sometimes arriving at a conclusion too early is another way of being wrong.”
Personification of the past
In Britain, soon after becoming an MEP, the BNP leader attracted media attention after he was pelted with eggs by anti-fascist activists shouting “Nick Griffin, Nazi scum”. He believes the “liberal media elite” does not want him to improve his standing. Though building bridges with the media would be “very, very valuable”, this is unlikely to happen.
Griffin found it difficult to communicate the party’s message on television when, in October 2009, he was invited to make his first appearance on the BBC’s political panel show Question Time. His appearance pulled in over eight million viewers — the most watched episode in the programme’s 30-year history — and the event was tailored towards examining Griffin’s party. Front-bench politicians and audience members exchanged insults with the BNP chairman, castigating him for having a “fascist background” and “no moral compass”. People were horrified by his statements: he admitted links with former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, and described gay men kissing as “really creepy”. As he failed to deflect accusations of Holocaust denial, many viewed him as the personification of the party’s past (6).
Unlike Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose first major TV appearance on Antenne 2’s L’heure de Vérité in 1984 increased membership and cemented his place in French political life, Griffin’s poll ratings have declined and the media have stayed away: “Unless I strangle a kitten, I’m not going to get on television.” Griffin alleges that powerful forces in the media are denying his party the exposure it deserves. “This is not a conspiracy theory or anything anti-semitic, we’ve got Jewish councillors and Jewish members. The Zionist lobby has a lot of power in the media.” He added: “There is a very militant gay lobby within the media. They don’t like us. We just want to stop them teaching homosexuality to five-year-olds.”
Despite Griffin’s explanations of why his party is not doing better, it is likely that he has not developed a narrative to engage potential supporters. In recent years the BNP has appeared opportunistic, clinging to any passing issue not fully exploited by the mainstream parties. The party was against the war in Afghanistan; in favour of improved environmental policies but against the great global warming “hoax”; in favour of the nationalisation of telecom services and the creation of local currencies. Griffin may have found a number of political positions that the party could take to entice new sympathisers, but has yet to develop the arguments for people to make the commitment.
Isolationist escape route
Marine Le Pen believes that she has found the language to attract new support to the Front National. The party often depicted as a mixture of white separatists, older rightwing Catholics and Vichy apologists has started to gain followers from more diverse parts of the electorate. First-time voters, middle-income workers and some second- and third-generation immigrants have been welcomed as Le Pen presents her party as a radical alternative to the discredited politics of the past.
Does she care about building bridges with the mainstream and courting the media? “No, because it would be a step that was politically dishonest and completely opportunistic.” Even so she has found fame on television talk shows, and the French press publishes more features about her than any other opposition figure. She has successfully harnessed a negative populist narrative: she is against immigration, the EU and globalisation. She seems less willing than her father to demonise sections of the general public. She saves her ire for elite politicians and financiers, whom she feels are to blame for society’s woes — crime, unemployment and public service shortages.
Le Pen brazenly offers disgruntled voters an escape route from economic stagnation and national decline. She promotes an isolationist programme, arguing that her party can make France economically self-sufficient, through restricting the flow of labour and building up the industrial base. She wraps all this in a language that makes anxious “French” people feel prioritised. “We don’t have the means any more, nor the national community, to subsidise the needs of foreigners who come to France while there are so many unemployed people.”
Immigration, identity and Islam
In France, the UK and most of western Europe, there has been a recent re-evaluation of the benefits of immigration. Leading political figures, social democrat and conservative, have initiated public debates on national identity and spoken out against multiculturalism, calling on the continent’s minorities to adhere to “European values”.
In France, the government-led debate on “what it means to be French” and “what immigration contributes to our national identity” has pressured minorities to adapt to majority culture. On the orders of the president and his former immigration minister, Eric Besson, town hall meetings were held and plans discussed for immigrants to attain a strong command of French and all schools to fly the tricolour. “We must reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French,” Besson proclaimed, amid arguments that the ruling party were pandering to the far right (7).
Did the FN spark this whole debate? “Yes of course, entirely,” Le Pen says bluntly. “We are at the centre of political life in France. Everybody has their own position in relation to us.”
She has steered clear of making racially inflammatory remarks, unlike her father. Instead she invokes the republic when discussing the status of minority communities in France. “I think the state must remember that in France, it’s French laws and French principles and values which apply. Anyone who wants to live in contradiction to these laws, these principles, these values does not have a place in France.”
An alarmist narrative is developing around the rights of the country’s Muslim population, Europe’s largest. In March the president announced another national debate, on Islam’s place in French society. He followed this by praising the country’s “Christian heritage” and made clear his distaste for visible signs of Islam in secular France — halal food, outside prayer and minarets (8).
The change in legal status of the Islamic full-face veil (worn by only a few hundred women in France) dominated political discourse for months, supported by most parliamentarians. This added to Muslims’ beliefs that they were being singled out by the political establishment — marginalised by desperate politicians searching for votes.
Le Pen refuses to be drawn into a debate about Islam’s compatibility with French society because she says: “In France we don’t make judgments on religion. I prefer to talk of fundamentalism; that’s to say sharia law.” This focus on “extremists” deflects accusations that the FN (and the ruling party) are seeking to stigmatise France’s Muslims en masse. Yet the wellbeing of the country’s Muslim communities has been absent from high-level discussion, even though these communities have high rates of deprivation, suffer increased discrimination in work, the criminal justice system and public services, and witnessed a rise in physical attacks. Le Pen does not attempt to explain these issues, as if she is afraid of disappointing her support base.
British jobs for British workers
Britain has been reconsidering the success of its ethnically diverse society. Ten years after the former foreign secretary Robin Cook made his “chicken tikka masala” speech, in which he declared that his country could “celebrate the enormous contribution of the many communities in Britain to strengthening our economy, to supporting our public services, and to enriching our culture and cuisine” (9), front-bench politicians have refined their positions on the benefits of immigration.
This move has been influenced by the populist press binding any discussion of immigration to security issues and economic crises, despite their many and frequent anti-foreigner stories. Comments on immigrant crime levels and minority communities’ dependency on welfare payments have become intellectualised through a conservative backlash against political correctness.
Nick Griffin takes responsibility for this change in political debate. He claims that both the Conservative and Labour parties are speaking in a language which was considered extremist in the past, and made him a pariah for three decades. The slogan “British Jobs for British Workers”, first uttered by Gordon Brown, was emblazoned on BNP literature and the party warned of a tsunami of foreign-born migrants flooding the country to seek work. During the general election campaign, Griffin suggested that immigration had led to parts of his constituency looking like “something out of Africa” (10) and claimed that African immigrants were paid up to £50,000 by the government to move nearby and ensure “safe Labour majorities in the future” (11).
Griffin came a poor third and his personal percentage of the vote fell. The party failed even to get two-thirds of their supporters from the previous year’s EU election, and on a higher turnout. “There were crocodiles of African voters being led to each polling station with a Labour party activist or local election candidate standing inside the polling station, telling them how to vote,” he told me.
Griffin is preoccupied with race. While far-right parties across Europe had already begun to attract support from growing numbers of second and third generation non-European migrants, the BNP only allowed non-white people to become party members last year. This was precipitated by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission taking the party to court for breaching non-discrimination law.
Why did they not change the policy earlier? Griffin offered a disturbing explanation. “If you were talking to a group of female victims of rape and gang sexual assault, and you said: ‘Why won’t you let men in? Do you hate men?’ The same is true of the party. It’s a refuge centre for people battered by the multi-racial experiment.”
Rise of Europe’s far right
Anti-immigrant and far-right populist parties have increased their influence across Europe: the Dutch and Austrian Freedom parties, the Danish and Swiss People’s parties, Italy’s Northern League, the Norwegian Progress Party and True Finns. All are in positions of influence, either as part of a governing coalition or as the most vocal opposition party in their national parliaments.
A number of them have distanced themselves from the FN, still tainted by the name “Le Pen”. Domestically and abroad, many understand that although the commander has changed, the lower ranks still retain the ethnic nationalists and unashamed xenophobes. Now Marine Le Pen wants to strengthen the party and build alliances with natural partners across the continent. She is confident that she will not make the same mistakes that ensured her father was quarantined for his entire career.
Nick Griffin insists that the British National Party is “part of the same thing” — a new nationalism sweeping the continent. In reality, his organisation is not achieving anywhere near the same level of political leverage and the mainstream seems content to ignore it; most people find his paranoid style of politics and crude language impossible to connect with.
The future of the cross-Channel relationship is also in doubt. Marine Le Pen told me that she finds some of the BNP’s policies “repugnant” and prioritises her relationship with the “younger” United Kingdom Independence Party (the single-issue anti-EU party). Griffin believes the relationship between FN and his party “is pretty much as it’s always been. We admire what they do, they admire what we do.” When I tell him of Le Pen’s comments, he says: “Good luck to her. If it’s useful, convenient or sincere for her to say that she doesn’t like things that we do, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”
The author of this article, K. Biswas, is a writer based in London; he is currently working on a book on the emergence of far-right populism across Europe and the US
(1) “Nick Griffin addresses the nation”, British National Party Online Television Channel, 11 August 2011.Le Monde Diplomatique
(2) BNP European election broadcast, 4 June 2009.
(3) Letter to The Guardian, 2 June 2009.
(4) 2009 Archbishops’ Statement on the European Elections, Church of England website, 24 May 2009.
(5) Nick Griffin, speech at Manchester town hall, 8 June 2009.
(6) Question Time, BBC, 22 October 2009.
(7) Eric Besson, Le Monde, Paris, 25 October 2009.
(8) The Guardian, London, 3 March 2011.
(9) Speech at the Social Market Foundation, London, 19 April 2001.
(10) Barking and Dagenham election appeal, British National Party Online Television Channel, November 2009.
(11) BNP election leaflet, 2010.