Former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon recently said that voting for the far-right National Front could be acceptable, opening a debate in France about the role of the right-wing party led by Marine Le Pen. Fillon's statements highlight the National Front's success at reconfiguring itself as a legitimate party in France, and are a reminder that moderate parties are coming under increasing pressure from nationalist forces to harden their stances on issues such as immigration and EU membership. This is a trend that is verified elsewhere in Europe, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the Nordic states, and will likely deepen as the European crisis continues.
Last week Fillon, who could run for the 2017 presidential elections, said that in the second round of municipal elections, where the center-right candidate had been eliminated, voters should choose the "least-sectarian" candidate, whether from the National Front or the Socialist Party. This was a clear departure from the center-right's official policy, which demands voters to support neither. Until recently, cooperation with the National Front was a non-starter for mainstream parties in France.
Fillon's words are a confirmation of the National Front's efforts to be perceived as a legitimate party in France, which is the result of two factors. First, party leader Marine Le Pen has given the party a softer image, compared to the strong style of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Under Marine, the party has sought to distance itself from its more extreme members in order to improve its image in the eyes of voters. For example, the National Front has toned down its anti-immigration message, but only marginally, as it now criticizes foreigners on an economic basis rather than a racial basis. The economic crisis is also helping the National Front, as anti-European rhetoric and calls for greater economic protectionism are becoming increasingly popular among the French. As a result, the party had a record performance in the 2012 presidential elections, where it got 17.9 percent of the vote.
This has forced mainstream parties in France to adopt some of the themes that characterize the National Front. During his presidency, Sarkozy initiated a debate on the presence of Muslim immigrants in France, called for a greater protection of European industry and questioned the Schengen Agreement. Recently, President Francois Hollande came under criticism for the expulsion on Roma people from France. This echoes similar processes elsewhere in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has hardened its anti-immigration rhetoric and started a reassessment of Britain's links with the European Union to cope with the rising popularity of the euroskeptic UKIP party. In the Netherlands and Nordic Europe, moderate parties have been forced to adapt their agendas to compete with emerging nationalist and euroskeptic forces.
As the economic crisis lingers in Europe, and as far-right parties succeed in softening their image, nationalist and euroskeptic forces are likely to remain strong in the Continent. This will continue creating challenges for moderate parties, as they will struggle to adapt their agendas to the evolving political environment. Most important, this will create greater challenges for the survival of the European Union in its current form and the political elites that support it.