Is Europe on the brink of a resurgence of fascism?

In France 6.3 million people have just voted for the far-right. The number is alarming and, in the context of European history, sinister. It seems that fascism is rearing its ugly head, but this time wearing the mask of the people.

Fascism is an ideology that seeks to purify a nation of foreign influences thought to be causing its social and economic decline or of not fitting into the national culture. To achieve its goals, fascism purges ideas, people, and systems that are seen as leading to decadence and degeneration. Traditionally, fascism depends on a supreme leader who exercises a dictatorship over the party, the government and other state institutions.

Most scholars agree that a “fascist regime” is foremost an authoritarian form of government, but not all authoritarian regimes are fascist. Authoritarianism is a defining characteristic, but many will say that more distinguishing traits are needed to make an authoritarian regime fascist. True. But that was the old model.

Today’s fascism is markedly different in one important aspect: it seems to originate in and be inspired by the people. Many French people are convinced of the innate superiority of their culture and way of life; many have repressed their own history of collaboration with Nazism and the nation’s complicity in human rights abuses in parts of Africa; many have been persuaded of the inferiority of immigrants and the virulence of Islam. It is in this context that racism and fascism have flourished and only await an opportunistic leader.

In his book The Anatomy of Fascism (2004) Robert O. Paxton, professor emeritus at Columbia University, defines it as: “A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” Are there echoes here of what is currently going on in France?

Immigration is a case in point. While the integration of Europe has facilitated greater freedom of movement, it has also given greater significance to the line between “integrated Europe” and the rest of the world. Abolishing Europe’s internal checkpoints meant that the border of the Schengen zone took on a greater significance. However, the frontiers of fortress Europe have long been porous, resulting in what the American sociologist Doug Massey calls “anti-immigrant times” in which political movements emerging on the extreme right provide the shrill backdrop against which Sarkozy and others try to make political headway.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Marine Le Pen has tried to camouflage the fascist intentions of the Front National by appearing to disavow her father’s tactics, playing with concepts such as filiation and laïcité, and proclaiming her agenda of becoming a latter-day Jeanne d’Arc, or as she puts it, “the personification of national ambition and to return to France a spirit of greatness and an awareness of its place in history” (18 June 2010). The 6.3 million people who voted for her clearly believe this rhetoric. No need to say beware the Front National, every reason to say beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is Marine Le Pen.

In 1941 the German playwright Bertold Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, chronicling the rise of a fictional 1930s Chicago mobster and his attempts to control the cauliflower racket by ruthlessly disposing of the opposition. The play is a satire on the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. It ends with these words:

“Therefore learn how to see and not to gape.
To act instead of talking all day long.
The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape –
The womb he crawled from still is going strong.”

Is Europe on the brink of a resurgence of fascism? Or is it already over the edge?


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