Here, we look at those men and women who have one thing in common : whether they have brought a failing party back on track through their own new-found glory, or have completely turned public opinion around (and in some cases even changed the entire political spectrum), they are all trying to create something new from something old. We call them “the heirs”.
FRANCE : Marine Le Pen follows in her father’s footsteps
Having led France’s Front National for 39 years without a break, the elderly Jean-Marie Le Pen has finally decided to call it a day. And it’s not just anyone who’s taking the reins – as of this year, the new face of the party is none other than his youngest daughter, Marine.
Marine Le Pen, who will be turning 43 this year, is no amateur when it comes to politics. She has been a councillor for France’s Nord-Pas-de-Calais region since 1998 (excluding 2004-2010) and a member of the European Parliament since 2004 – yet, although she first showed an interest in politics as far back as the 1980s, she remained in her father’s shadow in the eyes of the media for some time. It was only during the 2002 French presidential campaign that she herself well and truly came to the public’s attention, following her appearance in a debate shown on French television discussing the results of the first round of voting. Her father Jean-Marie had made it through to the second round with almost 17% of the votes, oustripping the competition (socialist candidate Lionel Jospin) by several dozen points, and hot on the heels of outgoing president Jacques Chirac, who was only three points ahead.
- Marine Le Pen at the Front National’s annual tribute to Joan of Arc, 1 May 2011
Source : Neno° Flickr
Although she is part of the immediate family of the party’s founder, running for presidency of the Front National (which went to the vote in January) has been a rocky road indeed for Marine. Her main competition took the form of Bruno Gollnisch, the party’s number two, who many assumed would be the natural successor to Le Pen Senior. In July 2010 a researcher at the Sophiapol laboratory at Paris West University (Nanterre), Sylvain Crépon, summarised the standoff between the two rivals thus : “Gollnisch follows the party line, but she has the name” (see the newspaper Libération). Bruno Gollnisch, who is a Euro-MP and a councillor for the Rhône-Alpes region, is certainly famed for his staunch adherence to the right-wing politics of his mentor Jean-Marie. In 2005 he was suspended for five years by the disciplinary committee at Jean Moulin University Lyon 3, where he had been teaching Japanese, following revisionist comments made during a press conference the previous year – showing that his political stance is faithful to that of the former Front National leader, who was similarly prosecuted on a number of occasions, such as for his description of the gas chambers as merely a “detail in history” during the French radio programme Le Grand Jury RTL-Le Monde. On 10 May, the European Parliament even approved the lifting of Gollnisch’sparliamentary immunity by an overwhelming majority (551 out of 632 votes) following a complaint on grounds of “incitement to racial hatred” in relation to anti-Muslim comments made by his parliamentary group in 2008.
These past incidents symbolise the authoritarian, reactionary image of ’old-school’ French politics which the Front National has found it so hard to shake off. It is precisely from this image that Marine Le Pen is attempting to distance herself, being highly disciplined in her use of speech and taking care to avoid any antisemitic slip-ups, so as to show that the party has moved on from its old ways. Recent polls on the subject of the 2012 presidential elections have revealed her to be a far more acceptable candidate than her father in the eyes of both the French electorate and right-wing conservative activists, the latter having become disillusioned with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP). A survey by the market research firm Harris Interactive, published in March by the newspaper Le Parisien, amid great criticism, even suggested she was leading the opinion polls in the run-up to the first round of voting. With popular support for President Sarkozy having dropped considerably during the last few months, Marine Le Pen is looking like a viable alternative for those who believe the current government has been too timid over matters such as immigration, Islam and national security. She’s young, she’s well-educated (she worked as a lawyer before committing herself fully to politics) and she’s dynamic – and she also has the advantage of being able to draw in the younger voters.
Yet, although Marine Le Pen is frequently portrayed as a more modern, open-minded person than her father, she remains a controversial figure in the world of politics, someone who has the gift of the gab and knows how to give the right level of gentle encouragement to those who are tentative in their fear of Islam. Whilst visiting Lyon in December 2010 she famously likened the blocking of the streets for Muslim prayers to an occupation of French territory, provoking attacks from the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples, or MRAP). She then claimed she had not intended to draw a parallel between the Muslims’ prayers and the Nazis’ occupation of France. In February it was the issue of financing France’s mosques that came into her line of fire – during an interview on French radio (in the programme le Grand Jury RTL/LCI/Le Figaro), when asked if she thought it necessary to build more mosques in order to avoid Muslims praying in the streets, she declared : “If there isn’t enough room for everyone in the mosque, all people have to do is pray at home”.
According to Jean-Yves Camus, a political commentator specialising in the far right, anti-Islam is at the top of the agenda for the Front National’s new leader, just as it is for Dutch politician Geert Wilders. “In Marine Le Pen’s view, France’s roots are in Christian tradition,” he explains. “The problems surrounding national identity have become a recurring and highly significant issue for the Front National during Marine Le Pen’s time, but the party has now changed its image and is no longer advocating the expulsion of all non-Europeans from France. Its current focus is the threat posed to the Western world by “Islam”(note “Islam”, not “islamism” – the Front National makes no distinction between the two).”
Like her father, Marine Le Pen knows how best to use the so-called ’language of the people’. During the presidential convention of the Front National held in Lille in February, she defended the typically French idea that the State should have the power to intervene in the economy in order to provide assistance for the poorest communities. “She attacks capitalism in the same way as the far left have traditionally done,” Camus points out. For some time now, she has also been openly anti-European (an important issue for her father too, during his time as leader), arguing that France should leave the European Union and, with it, the eurozone.
In a social climate marked by crisis and a situation where free exchange and the market economy are increasingly prevalent, suggestions of promoting a welfare state and a return to protectionism bring welcome reassurance. Marine Le Pen represents a toned-down version of her father, proudly assuming the role of ’the moral candidate’ in the face of prominent political figures who are deemed overly cautious on issues that the French population would like to see addressed as a matter of urgency, such as immigration, and whose sole motivations are the chance to gain power and the lure of profit. There is a real possibility that the 2012 presidential elections may see a repeat performance of the situation in 2002, only this time featuring the daughter in her father’s place.
SWEDEN : Jimmie Åkesson puts an end to Swedish exceptionalism
32-year-old Jimmie Åkesson joined the Sweden Democrats in 1995 and took over the leadership ten years later. Today his single objective is to establish proper political recognition for his party.
The Sweden Democrats was founded in 1988 and its roots lie in Swedish fascism, although the party officially rejected Nazism in 1999. During the 1990s it progressively distanced itself from the smaller fascist groups that spawned some of its early ideas, focusing its attentions instead on the parliamentary model of democracy in a move that brought it into line with other European far-right parties such as France’s Front National and the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ). It was Mikael Jansson, the 46-year-old former leader of the Sweden Democrats, who first tried to restore the party’s reputation in 1996 by banning members from wearing their uniforms during meetings.
A group known as the “Scania gang” (which counts current party leader Jimmie Åkesson among its members) has been continuing with Jansson’s more moderate stance since 2000 by expelling openly extremist members. Åkesson in fact showed a strong interest in politics from an early age, joining the Sweden Democrats party at 16 following a short-lived period spent as a member of the Moderate Youth League (part of the conservative Moderate Party known in Swedish as the Moderaterna), and in 1998 was elected as a local councillor for Sölvesborg Municipality, representing the Sweden Democrats – marking the start of a promising career for the 19-year-old.
Having witnessed the successful banning of uniforms and bomber jackets by his predecessor Jansson and having taken leadership of the Sweden Democrats, Åkesson saw to it that all racist passages in the manifesto were deleted – and in 2001 the party officially severed the last remaining ties with its most radical faction. Whenever he is asked whether the party has any neo-Nazi members, he makes a point of playing down any influence they might have, saying “we had one or two of them in the party 15 or 20 years ago”.
Seemingly, it was not enough for the young Mr Åkesson to change just the party’s image, and he set about working on his own. Abandoning the rather plain, unpolished style he had originally favoured, he modelled his new persona on that of a serious, respectable businessman, opting for classic suit-and-tie combinations in conservative colours. With his neatly gelled hairstyle and smart glasses he became the picture of intellectualism, someone who really meant business – and that was precisely the idea : for his new, neutral approach to be taken seriously. Although to some extent still displaying a lack of media confidence (when appearing on television after the Sweden Democrats won their first parliamentary seats in September’s general election, he struggled to hide the fact that he was reading from an autocue), he does his best to divert our attention from this by constantly turning the conversation round to his preferred topic : immigrants – to be specific, Muslims.
Åkesson further explained these deep concerns regarding immigration during an interview in January for the BBC’s Hard Talk. “A large number of immigrants have arrived in Sweden over the past few decades. Many Muslim immigrants have created ghettos in areas around the big cities, and are constructing a parallel society of their own.” At a parliamentary meeting in December, the day after attacks in Stockholm killed one person and injured two others, the Sweden Democrats leader complained that the debate over Muslim extremists in the country had been far too restrained, which he alleged was due to excessive political correctness. A member of the Green party present at the same discussion, Maria Ferm, then launched an attack against Åkesson, saying he was “trying to make the typical image of a terrorist fit with that of a Muslim”.
According to an article written for the Guardian last September by the Swedish journalist and author Henning Mankell, the Sweden Democrats’ newest members are being recruited predominantly from the working classes, who feel abandoned by the traditional parties – and the fact that the party has been cast out of mainstream politics in Sweden only adds to people’s sympathy. Another Swedish journalist, Marina Ferhatovic, agrees that the party has been shunned by other politicians for years, both locally and nationally : “This has made them into the victim, and they are happily drawing attention to that fact. A lot of the time, it is they who accuse the media of being in league against them.”
In the run-up to September’s general election, a Swedish television channel refused to air the Sweden Democrats’ party political broadcast on the grounds that it contained xenophobic material. In the advertisement, set in a dark, dramatic version of a benefits office, we are shown staff working behind two desks marked “pensions” and “immigration”, whereupon an elderly lady with a walking frame enters and attempts to move towards the “immigration” desk. Suddenly, a mob of women swarms into the room, clad in black burqas and armed with pushchairs, and charges towards the “pensions” desk. Meanwhile, a female narrator tells us : “It’s up to you now. On 19 September, you can choose to raise the alarm on immigration instead of pensions.”
The Sweden Democrats well and truly made a breakthrough in the general election, winning 5.7% of the vote and 20 of the 349 seats available. This represents a first for a far-right party in Sweden, given that in the past none was able to break the 4% barrier. Jimmie Åkesson even went as far as to announce that his party had “rewritten history”. For many of Sweden’s columnists and commentators this success is to a large extent related to the government’s inability to hold open debates on matters such as its immigration and integration policy. “People are afraid of immigration. In Sweden, too, they are scared of losing their identity and of becoming ’second-class citizens’ compared to immigrants,” says Marina Ferhatovic. “Although exaggerated, these fears are perhaps indicative of an instinctive reaction to the threats currently posed with regards to national identity. While the other parties prefer to avoid the issue, accusing those who discuss it of being xenophobic, the Sweden Democrats constantly highlight it, and people like that.”
The Sweden Democrats have been political pariahs for many years, and the country’s other parties refuse to allow them to have any direct influence whatsoever. In an article published on Euractiv.com shortly before the recent general election, however, Swedish journalist Mats Engström pointed out that the chance of the Sweden Democrats joining forces with the centre-right coalition, or with the opposition, was not to be ruled out, even if only unofficially, citing the example of Prime Minister Carl Bildt’s government having worked alongside an anti-immigration group, albeit in an unofficial capacity, between 1991 and 1994.
With all this behind it, Sweden can now no longer be considered as the exception, standing alone as it once did amid the wave of far-right sympathisers across Europe. Despite Åkesson’s mission to ’clean up’ the Sweden Democrats’ image, though, many are still asking for answers as to what they really stand for, beneath the exterior. Last September, for example, the former editor-in-chief of Sweden’s daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Anders Mellbourn, told German magazine Spiegel Online that “these people are not simply right-wing populists, they come from the world of neo-Nazism.” The day following the elections, thousands of Swedes descended into the streets in protest against the party’s breakthrough into parliament, with cries of “No racists in our parliament !”.
AUSTRIA : Heinz-Christian Strache, a worthy successor to Jörg Haider
- Heinz-Christian Strache
Blue eyes, a perfect smile, a chiselled physique thanks to cardio and weights workouts in gyms in the Austrian capital, fashionable outfits often topped off with the latest in-vogue scarf – all of these components make up the ‘HC’ brand, the code name of Heinz-Christian Strache. Famous for scouring Vienna nightclubs for young voters to bribe with generous rounds of Red Bull, while promoting his cliché-ridden rap CD – “The people’s representatives are traitors, the East in the West” – Strache may be the leader of the working-class Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs or FPÖ), but his profile is far from the epitome of a refined political strategy.
A dental technician by trade, he first got involved in politics in 1991 at the age of 22, when he became a member of the FPÖ in a district of his home town of Vienna. Two years later, he became president of the party’s youth organisation, but would have to wait eight more years before being elected to local parliament in 2001, when he also became leader of the party’s parliamentary group in Vienna.
Shortly before a party conference in April 2005, MEP Andreas Mölzer, who once headed up the FPÖ’s right wing and was the former right-hand man of the late leader Jörg Haider, was banned from attending for criticising the party’s direction under Haider and his sister Ursula Haubner in his magazine Zur Zeit. His exclusion provoked furious debate within the party and allowed the young leader of the Viennese federation, Heinz-Christian Strache, to step into the limelight and assert himself as the party’s rising star. Haider left the FPÖ, abandoning the party’s most loyal followers to found his own party, The Alliance for the Future of Austria (Bündnis Zukunft Österreich or BZÖ), and pursue a political alliance with the conservative Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei or ÖVP). In April 2005, his sister also left the FPÖ to join forces with him once more, allowing Strache to replace her as leader of the FPÖ.
Haider then became Strache’s main rival, dubbing him a ‘political dwarf’ in an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel in September 2008. The former party leader even went as far as to say “I pity him”. In the 2008 legislative elections, Strache gained 18.5% of the vote, and 25% among 16-30-year-olds, surpassing his BZÖ rival and recording his first victory in the process. Although Haider had already lost a lot of his political influence upon leaving the FPÖ, his death in a road accident in October 2008 unquestionably removed a thorn from Strache’s side, who was all of a sudden completely free of challengers. He nevertheless paid tribute to the man who was once his mentor, lamenting “the loss of a politician of the highest order”.
Just as Haider did in his time, Strache immediately surrounded himself with young militants from Burschenschaften – pan-German nationalist all-male student fraternity clubs. The defining features of these clubs are their common bond to National Socialism and their affinity with duelling. The FPÖ recruits most of its employees from these clubs, such as the Vienna-based ‘Silvania’ from which Jörg Haider became party leader in 1986. In the early 90s, the FPÖ started to distance itself from its own student club, following an increase in racist attacks attributed to its members. Nonetheless, in an article published in October 2009 in the French weekly news magazine L’Express, journalist Basile Gauquelin pointed out that 15 out of the FPÖ’s 16 male representatives had been a member of a club. Unlike Haider, Strache did not come from an openly Nazi family, but he makes up for this with his heavy involvement in one of the Burschenschaften, ‘Vandalia’, for which he took part in a duel in 2004.
In October 2010, the FPÖ achieved a spectacular breakthrough in the Vienna local elections, gaining 27% of the vote and second place behind the Austrian Social Democrat party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs or SPÖ), which only received 44.3%. For Strache, the victory was two-fold, since he was also able to demonstrate his ability to match his late rival Jörg Haider, who had gained 27.9% of the vote in Vienna with the FPÖ in 1996. On his blog, French MEP Bruno Gollnisch congratulated Strache, calling him a “loyal friend of the Front National and of Bruno Gollnisch”.
Strache, however, is seeking to turn over a new leaf and cover up his shadowy past, attempting amongst other things to gloss over his participation in paramilitary training sessions with notorious Austrian right-wing extremists. Ever mindful of the potential benefit of exploiting current trends, his rhetoric is based not on references to the Third Reich, but on anti-Islam attitudes.
In 2009, Strache wasted no time in taking to the streets of the Austrian capital, with cross in hand, in protest against the enlargement of an Islamic centre. He also focused his attacks on the SPÖ, which he regularly accused of being complacent on Islam and Islamic drifts, with slogans such as “We protect free women ; the SPÖ supports the Muslim veil”. Never afraid of being politically incorrect, Strache was quick to announce that he wanted to kick out all the foreigners who take advantage of the Austrian social security system, and that he was campaigning for a general ban on the construction of mosques. In an interview with the Telegraph in October 2008, he also waged war on ‘inverse racism’ : “In some school classes just two out of the 30 children are Austrian, and they are confronted with racism every day.”
The collapse of the Social Democrats and the conservative parties in the last legislative elections appears to be mainly down to the fact that until now they have ignored the Austrian population’s growing discontent regarding immigration and their fears about Islam. Austrian journalist Marion Bacher believes that Strache is stirring up these fears : “He exploits issues such as foreigners, immigration and integration. But at the same time, these are important topics that the other parties are ignoring. If people have reservations about the expansion of the European Union to the East, this needs to be discussed, even if their reservations are irrational.”
Strache is aiming to attract voters who would usually vote for the SPÖ. In the 2010 regional elections, many observers noted that he had scored points in the four working-class districts of Vienna, especially in areas with social housing estates – normally Social Democrat strongholds. Benedikt Narodoslawsky, the author of a book on the rise of the FPÖ, Blausprech – Wie die FPÖ ihre Wähler fängt (Blue Talk – Where the FPÖ gets its voters from), believes that the FPÖ has succeeded in appealing to a broad base of voters : “They present themselves as the social party of the ‘nation’, mixing right with left and nationalism with socialism”.
On 13 April, the conservative Austrian Vice-chancellor and Minister of Finance Josef Pröll resigned on health grounds. Strache’s name quickly began to circulate as his potential successor. Marion Bacher sums up this paradox of a character : “The journalists don’t take Strache seriously ; they claim he is much stupider than Haider and therefore less dangerous. They make fun of him, but at the same time they’re talking about him as the next Vice-chancellor”.