A Surging Hard Right Stumbles Over Its Own Divisions

Nationalists are surging and expected to make big gains when voters from 27 nations cast ballots starting this week for the European Parliament. But the prospect of success is already raising the question among far-right parties of how far is too far.

That question has become pressing as popular hard-right parties, especially in Italy and France, try to make themselves more palatable to the mainstream, splitting those who have sanitized and gained acceptability from those who are still considered taboo.

Today, the hard right is a movement marbled by fissures and shifting alliances.

Last year, Marine Le Pen, the French nationalist, seemed to disparage Italy’s hard-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who since coming to power has tried to make herself a trustworthy partner for mainstream conservatives. “Meloni is not my twin sister,” she had told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, making it clear she considered herself more hard line.

Now, Ms. Le Pen has offered to form an alliance in the European Parliament, though it is not clear if Ms. Meloni wants to allow her to ride her coattails, as Ms. Le Pen’s party is still scorned by many in the European center right.

Ms. Le Pen, for her part, has distanced herself from Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a far-right party that appears to have become too extreme even for its fellow travelers. In May, Ms. Le Pen and her group in the European Parliament, none of them shy about nationalism, kicked the AfD out after one of its leaders made statements that seemed to justify membership by some in the SS, the Nazi paramilitary force.

“Throwing the AfD under the bus was a fantastic political gift” for Ms. Le Pen, said Jacob F. Kirkegaard, a political analyst in Brussels and a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a research organization. “She can position herself as ‘not the far right.’”

There is little doubt that nationalist parties across Europe have helped one other, as each success opens a path of acceptance for others. As kindred political actors, they converge on key themes shared across their borders, such as the protection of Christian traditions and family values, opposition to immigration and criticism of the European Union.

But now, for the far right, it is an argument over shades of acceptability. It has proved a disorienting place to be for parties that, not long ago, were almost all considered unacceptable by the European establishment.

The erosion of that barrier was driven by the success of far-right parties and the adoption of parts of their agenda by mainstream parties.

It has also presented a problem to Europe’s mainstream: Which parties among the nationalists would it be willing to partner with if need be?

Mainstream parties “are moving the red line,” said Nicolai von Ondarza, a political scientist with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “And where you draw the red lines matters for who will form the majority in the European Parliament.”

That challenge is especially acute for Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s top executive, who also leads the Parliament’s mainstream conservatives.

With opinion polls predicting the left to shrink and the far right to gain in the balloting that runs Thursday through Sunday, Ms. von der Leyen has signaled that she may look for allies on the hard right to gather enough votes to be approved for another term by the Parliament. But such a move would risk alienating center-left forces on which she has also depended and for which any far-right party, including Ms. Meloni’s, is too extreme.

She has tried to be firm about who would be an acceptable partner, drawing a clear line across the hard-right camp.

“It is very important to set clear principles: with whom do we want to work,” she said at a recent electoral debate. Parties must be “pro-Europe,” “pro-Ukraine,” “anti-Putin” and “pro-rule of law,” she said.

Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally party, the Alternative for Germany, and Poland’s Confederation party “are friends of Putin, and they want to destroy our Europe,” Ms. von der Leyen said, ruling them out.

Ms. Meloni, she signaled, falls on the acceptable side of this cleavage. That may leave Ms. Meloni in a critical position after the elections. The choice could be hers where to stand.

Ms. Le Pen hopes that an alliance with Ms. Meloni would allow the far right to become the second-biggest force in the European Parliament, and Ms. Meloni has also said she wants to send the left into the opposition.

But experts say that teaming up with Ms. Le Pen could set back the Italian leader’s effort to broaden her influence in Brussels and to serve as a partner for mainstream conservatives.

Though she has political roots in a neo-fascist party and is fighting culture wars at home, Ms. Meloni has emerged as a pragmatic operator on the international stage, firmly aligned with Europe’s leadership on key issues like supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Ms. Le Pen is in a harder spot. While Ms. Meloni leads one of the bloc’s founding nations, Ms. Le Pen remains sidelined in France, where her opponents still worry that she and her party threaten the values of the Republic.

Perhaps more important, Ms. Le Pen, along with some of her other allies on the hard right, have been far more ambiguous than Ms. Meloni on issues like supporting Ukraine.

While Ms. Le Pen and some top officials in her party have condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, other party officials have equivocated. The party has repeatedly opposed sanctions on some Russian imports, and rejected the possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO.

“The group would be re-toxified,” said Mr. von Ondarza, becoming “an unacceptable partner for the center right.”

Members of the AfD in Germany have also been accused of having ties to Russia, and in Italy, Matteo Salvini, an ally of Ms. Le Pen, recently referred to President Vladimir V. Putin’s rubber-stamp election as a legitimate expression of the Russian people’s will.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, another leading far-right figure, has embraced and emulated Mr. Putin, and he continues to oppose sending weapons to Ukraine or imposing a ban on Russian oil imports.

Immigration is another issue that has laid bare the contradictions for nationalist parties of trying to forge an international alliance. While the parties broadly agree on their opposition to migration, their national interests collide at the E.U. level.

Ms. Meloni supported legislation to distribute migrants from border countries where they arrive (like Italy and Greece) to other European Union nations. Nationalist leaders in the countries farther from the coast, like Mr. Orban of Hungary, were less keen on the idea.

“Isn’t it paradoxical for a nationalistic party to team up with parties across their borders?” asked Alberto Alemanno, a professor of European Union law at the business school HEC Paris, adding that these parties were “inherently incompatible.”

Such divisions are not so new. As much as far-right parties have bankrolled, cheered, hugged, imitated one another, and dreamed of creating a grand coalition of nationalist parties, they have also clashed and rebuked one another.

In 2014, the U.K. Independence Party of Nigel Farage, who helped lead Britain toward Brexit, rejected a deal with Ms. Le Pen’s party, citing “prejudice and antisemitism.” Before she offered an alliance, Ms. Le Pen accused Ms. Meloni of plotting to help Ms. von der Leyen “contribute to aggravating the policies that make the European people suffer.”

Still, for now, Ms. Meloni has not ruled out any possibilities.

Asked whether she would team up with extreme-right parties, she has said she is not going to give out “certifications of presentability” to any parties. “They gave them to me for a lifetime.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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