World Europe Focus

Why are Jews, gays, and other minorities in Europe increasingly voting far-right?

how others see it

Historically enemies, minorities and parties like France's National Front are increasingly in sync as the former seek insurance against radical Islam and the latter tries to gain mainstream credibility.

France's far-right National Front (FN) leader, Marine Le Pen, poses in front of a poster for her 2017 French presidential election campaign in Paris in November 2016.
Charles Platiau/Reuters | Caption

Leon de Winter, a Jewish bestselling novelist in Amsterdam, says supporting the Dutch political figure Geert Wilders, who seeks to “de-Islamify” the Netherlands, is “politically incorrect” and “not civilized.” But he defends the controversial leader anyway, calling him “a necessity in today’s political landscape.”

Bruno Clavet is well aware of the homophobic origins of the National Front, but today the gay Frenchman sees his country’s far-right party as the only one defending what he cares most about: reducing immigration, taking back control from the European Union, and promoting a tough stance against Islamic fundamentalism.

Even Poles, a target of British frustration over immigration that drove the vote to leave the EU, have supported the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the political face of last summer’s Brexit referendum. The party even at one point boasted a Polish fan club.

The minority vote for populist parties is not alone going to tip European politics. The votes of gays, or Jews, or immigrants for anti-establishment parties have grown alongside the population at large on questions of sovereignty, economy, or immigration, especially of Muslims, but remains a minority.

Yet their support serves an important purpose for the populist right in France, the Netherlands, Austria, and beyond, who are attempting to scrub away claims of racism, and often their anti-Semitic, homophobic histories. Even as they feed on the fear of the “other,” attracting minority voters helps them rebrand and move deeper into the mainstream.

“Populist parties are trying to make it clear that they are not racist in the traditional sense, not concerned about a person’s ethnic background but their cultural and social behavior,” says Eric Frey, managing editor of the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard.

He says that the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria, for example, founded by former Nazi party officials in the 1950s, has been courting minorities, including Jews, not so much because they need the Jewish vote in the country. “It is minuscule, it doesn’t bring you any votes. But it does protect you against accusations that you are too close to old Nazi ideology. It makes you more acceptable, both nationally and internationally.”

Jews and the far right

The rise of the self-declared Islamic State and other radical terrorist groups has made these parties powerfully attractive to segments of society that in another era might have turned their backs on them.

Mr. Wilders, who founded the Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2006, has been unabashed in his critique of Islam, calling for banning mosques and the Koran, and staking the hardest anti-Muslim stance in Europe. He was recently found guilty (though given no sentence) of inciting discrimination for leading a chant against Moroccans at a rally in 2014. Still, he is projected to win the largest share of seats – not enough to govern alone – in the national elections this March.

Jewish leaders like Ron van der Wieken, president of the Central Jewish Council, says only a fraction of Jews will be drawn to his ranks, given worries about the party's fascist overtones. In the 2012 Dutch elections, 2 percent of citizens who identify as Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist voted for the PVV, compared to 8-9 percent of Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, according to Dutch national statistics.

Yet fear over terrorism – and a way of life changed – has opened up new space. The Dutch novelist Mr. de Winter, who divides his time between the Netherlands and Israel, chose to base a fictional character on the platinum-blonde Wilders in his novel "VSV," based on the killing of Theo van Gogh, who directed the film "Submission," about Muslim women. The film angered many Muslims, and is cited as part of the motivation for his murder by a Dutch-Moroccan extremist in 2004. It shocked the Dutch, and feelings of uncertainty have only grown, with terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals in Paris, Nice, Brussels, and Berlin in just over a year.

“These feelings of discomfort, of desperation, about very lax migration, that’s felt in the general public here in Holland, and I think a bit more intense among the Dutch Jews,” de Winter says. 

In the Netherlands, Jewish schools and synagogue services are guarded by the military police. De Winter describes Amsterdam’s Jewish schools as “bunkers.”

“I think people feel that this society is not recognizing the special status of Jews, this feeling of being vulnerable, as this tiny group,” he says. “And of course, at the same time, you get used to it – to this scandal, to this total insanity that this is happening, that Jewish kids have to be protected like this in our age.” 

Mr. Frey, the newspaper editor in Vienna, says that the FPO has courted Jews in a message of alliance and protection. The party has been friendly with Israel at the same time that many mainstream European parties have taken a tougher stance on Israeli settlement expansion. And Jews are legitimately concerned by a new form of anti-Semitism that brews in pockets of Muslim communities. 

That any Jews are voting for the FPO shows that the party has occupied more ground in the center. But Frey also sees in it the complexity and weakness of the message emanating from “liberal elites" defending openness, tolerance, and diversity," he says. “It is hard to defend diversity if [the radical Muslim] part of this diversity is so highly intolerant.”

French nationalism ascendant

Perhaps that is why France's Marine Le Pen, leader of the FN, exudes confidence these days. Ms. Le Pen strides into a meeting with foreign journalists from the Anglo-American Press Association at her Paris campaign headquarters on a recent day, with warm New Year’s greetings, and settles in front of a poster of her campaign slogan: “In the name of the people.”

“The people” for the FN used to be more exclusive – certainly not Jews or gays, who were cast off as an “anomaly” by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the founder of the party. But since taking over the party in 2011, she has been on a clean-up mission, even breaking off relations with her father in 2015 over his reiteration that the Holocaust was a mere “detail” in history.

In fact, on this day she saves most of her vitriol for the EU, saying that during bailout negotiations it wielded the euro currency like “a knife stuck in a country’s ribs.”

She is careful about cultivating a more tolerant message, distinguishing radical Islam from the faith. “There are two Islams,” she told foreign journalists. “One is a religion that is perfectly compatible with French values, and practicing Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have never posed a problem. But there is another political, fundamentalist, totalitarian Islam that wants Sharia law over French law.”

To an extent, it has worked. Just as she has made interesting bedfellows with Socialist supporters in “rustbelt” France, her minority vote is growing. In 2012, 13 percent of Jews voted for her in presidential elections, compared with 6 percent for her father in 2002. The FN has even attracted some Muslims.

Gays for Le Pen

She’s been even more successful in gay quarters.

Polls by Ifop have shown support among gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals growing faster than among heterosexuals. Between Le Pen’s takeover of the party in 2011 and 2013, about 16 percent (a 7-point jump) of the former favored the FN, compared with 13 percent (a 4-point jump) of the latter. More recently, the research institute CEVIPOF found 32.5 percent of those in same-sex couples supporting the FN in the first round of regional elections in 2015.

The far right is far from monolithic in Europe. In the East, many parties spout unapologetic racism or hold deeply conservative family values.  In the West, especially on the culture wars, the far right has in some ways tried to refashion itself as a bastion of “European values,” which include things like sexual tolerance and gender equality. In France, on the gay issue, the mainstream right candidate François Fillon is far more conservative on family issues than Le Pen, appearing “a little like an American evangelical,” says Frederic Martel, the author of the French book "Global Gay," to be published in the US this spring.

It’s not that Le Pen is an advocate for the gay community. Inside her party remains a strong, traditionalist wing, whose public face is her own niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen. But she herself, twice divorced and with a top deputy who is gay, has sought to show a modern face, part of a larger effort to rid herself of the “anti” label, says Mr. Martel.

And that has opened space for more pressing issues, says Mr. Clavet, a former underwear model who ran for municipal elections in Paris in 2014 on the FN ticket. He says the gay issue, like gay marriage, is secondary to him. What he cares more about is the economy and security. “The [FN] is the party that responds to and understands the aspirations of the French,” he says.

In part, this simply shows that minorities are not voting on single identity issues. In the Netherlands, Jews who support the PVV mirror the rest of society, says David Wertheim, head of the Menasseh ben Israel Institute of Jewish studies in Amsterdam. “Because they fear Islam, because they hate elites, because they think there’s not good care for the elderly, for all these populist issues,” he says.

In Britain, UKIP found a small following among Poles, who at 800,000 comprise the UK’s largest immigrant community. A 2014 survey by Ipsos and the Polish City Club found that 5 percent of Poles planned to vote for UKIP in the 2015 local and European elections.

Eva Lis, a visual artist and Polish-Russian-English interpreter in east London who emigrated from Poland 20 years ago, says she herself does not support UKIP, but knows people aligning with their message on stricter immigration.

“I know some people, they’re middle-class people, that came here, and they buy into this idea of controlled immigration, because they’re already here,” she says. “They have their safe corner, and their insecurity – and snobbery – makes them protect their little corner, and they don’t want to be identified with this mass immigration of builders and cleaners from Poland, because they see themselves as a better Polish.”

In some ways it parallels a dynamic that plays out in the US, with Mexican-Americans, some of whom immigrated illegally at one point, calling for tougher immigration policies.

Inclusive populism?

The issue of minorities voting for the far right is fraught with moral questions. And many wonder how authentic populist parties are in the message of inclusion.

Clavet, for one, has no doubt that the FN is no longer homophobic. “I don’t condone the words from the '80s or '90s about homosexuals,” he says in a phone interview from Montreal, where he moved last November after losing his political bid. “But you have to put them in the context with the mentality of the era, when homosexuality was taboo.”

“If you look at the platform, there is not one line that is racist, not one line about Jews, or homosexuals,” he adds.

Frey says to a certain extent clean-up is authentic, especially on the Jewish question, which has been displaced by the Muslim one. And yet, old strains of anti-Semitism are hard to stamp out. He also sees a lot of hypocrisy.

“The parties are trying to present themselves as defenders of Western values, but it doesn’t fit their social profile as so many of their supporters are anti-gay or anti-woman.” As a Jewish Austrian, he can’t imagine ever voting for the FPO. “As a gay person, or a woman, I would not trust any of [these parties] either. I would think they could stab me in the back the next day,” he says.

"They will rail against Muslim attitudes towards women, but then they will also call for women to stay home."