Gideon Rachman: From France to America, the far right is on the march

Attitudes to democracy and the rule of law will define the distinctions in politics

French far-right Rassemblement National party leader Marine Le Pen meets local residents during a campaign visit at a market in Henin-Beamont. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images)

France’s far right would like — henceforth — to be known simply as “the right”.

One can see the logic. The Rassemblement National, the far-right party, is well ahead in the polls for fast-approaching legislative elections in France. Meanwhile the traditional right is in meltdown. If the RN becomes the largest group in the French parliament in July, the party will have redefined French conservatism.

The question of whether to rebrand the far right as the right resonates well beyond France. There is a similar issue in the US, where Donald Trump has transformed the Republican party in his own image. The traditional pro-market, internationalist party of George HW Bush barely exists today. Trump’s “America First” nativism now commands the conservative movement.

Parallel debates are going on in Italy and Britain. Does it still make sense to define Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, as a “far-right” politician? With Nigel Farage’s Reform party creeping ahead of the governing Conservatives in one poll, there is even talk of a post-election reverse takeover of the Tories by Farage and his ideas.


So what remains of the distinction between the right and the far right? The crucial dividing line is attitudes to democracy. If a political leader refuses to accept the results of an election and wants to smash the “deep state” (in reality, the state itself), then he or she is clearly on the far right.

But if a party pushes policies that liberals regard as unpleasant, reactionary or even racist but does that within the framework of democratic politics and the rule of law, the term “far right” may no longer be appropriate. Ideologies and political movements evolve. Some of these rising forces may simply be the new face of rightwing politics — just as Sir Robert Peel transformed British conservatism in the 19th century, or Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan remade the American right in the 20th century.

Political scientists talk about the “Overton window” — the range of policies that are regarded as respectable by mainstream opinion at any given time. What politicians such as Trump, Marine Le Pen and Farage have done is to shift that window, so policies once regarded as on the extreme right have moved into the mainstream.

This is most obviously the case on immigration, where variants of Trump’s “build the wall” policies now define the debate in the west. Can you really still call these policies “far right”, when majorities agree with them? Another term, such as “national populist”, seems more accurate.

Trump and his ilk have also pushed the Overton window on attitudes to Russia and Ukraine. Here the line between a new form of conservatism and far-right authoritarianism becomes more blurry. It is possible that the likes of Trump and Le Pen want to strike a deal with Russia because they are cold-blooded isolationists who do not believe support for Ukraine is in the national interest. But their flirtation with Vladimir Putin could also reflect admiration for his authoritarianism.

Trump definitively revealed his colours after losing the 2020 presidential election. His refusal to accept the results and his encouragement of an attempted coup showed the former president to be anti-democratic to his core. Former mainstream Republicans — such as senators Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell — have betrayed fundamental principles and demeaned themselves by endorsing Trump.

Le Pen and Meloni, however, have been moving in the opposite direction. Meloni to date has looked like a relatively conventional conservative in power — although many on the Italian left remain deeply suspicious that she has a hidden agenda.

Le Pen’s entire strategy over the past decade has been to “de-demonise” the far right and to move it into the centre. To that end, she has even expelled her own father from the party and, more recently, broken with Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany.

So does that mean we can relax if the RN takes a share of power in France in July? Absolutely not. Some of Le Pen’s policies on Europe — such as restoring the primacy of French law or withholding French payments to the EU budget — could cause economic turmoil and threaten the survival of the EU.

But policies such as these could still be legitimately pursued within a democratic framework. The real danger would come if an atmosphere of crisis created an excuse for the RN to call for emergency powers — and so cross the line into authoritarianism. There are people in the orbit of France’s far right who have flirted with sinister, anti-democratic ideas within recent memory.

To argue that the dividing line between the right and the far right is respect for democracy might seem to elevate form over content. Many hold the view that the really objectionable thing about politicians like Trump or Le Pen is the policies that they advocate — on a range of issues from immigration to the rights of women.

But as long as democratic structures survive, the voters have an opportunity eventually to reject those policies. The US turfed out Trump in the 2020 election. Poland’s ultra-conservative Law and Justice party lost office last year.

Respect for democracy and the rule of law remains the Rubicon that divides conservative politics from far-right authoritarianism.

Listen to our Inside Politics Podcast for the latest analysis and chat