Since the fall of key political figures, such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon, the Republican party named Les Républicains in France has grappled with diminishing political power and presence. With the emergence of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement (La République en Marche!) in April of 2016 that provided a centre basis for political parties and encompassed both left and right party values, as well as the strength of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, Les Républicains has faced difficulty in defining what its key platform and values are. Without key, unified values across this centre-right party, Les Républicains does not attract a definitive base, like En Marche or the National Rally might.
With each new reinvention of Les Républicains party through the name changes, the values and the connection to Gaullism creates a sense of French nationalism with the party, often translating to anti-immigration and traditional Christian values that are based on a connection to history. However, this connection between the centre-right party and values of nationalism and anti-immigration is not distinctive to just France; the centre-right party has seen its success throughout Europe, in countries such as Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
These central right parties throughout Europe provide an alternative to extreme right values and uses rhetoric based off of the historical past of these European countries, specifically in regards to nationalism and migration, where these political strategies and ideologies will effectively maintain the centre-right parties’ place throughout Europe political structures.
In 2020, the connection between nationalism and state sovereignty can be seen clearly with Brexit and the rise of the conservative party, The Tories, within the United Kingdom. The Tories have adopted a strong base for their values, defining their platform as one that protects traditional institutes and cultural values, which in practice results in exclusivity. For example, on November 14 of 2019, the Tories, through the representation of Home Secretary Priti Patel, stated that the party will make an effort to “reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors.” Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, supported Secretary Patel’s sentiments on immigration by stating, “I certainly think that when it comes to people who don’t have a job to go to and are coming in an uncontrolled way, we certainly need to be reducing that.”
These sentiments align with Les Républicains party and other centre-right parties in Europe, as this rhetoric plays off of an anti-immigration stance, carefully curated to promote strong nationalism and a stable economy within the country. By encouraging a form of elite immigration, through the acceptance of “skilled” individuals, such as doctors and scientists, the Tory party is effectively pleasing and aligning itself with both the middle and upper class. The middle class in the United Kingdom will not feel threatened by the presence of this type of immigration, since it will not be taking jobs away from the middle class, and both classes will experience the benefits of an increase in “skilled workers.”
This rhetoric has led to the unfolding of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (E.U.), which became official on January 31, 2020. Brexit was an accumulation of dissatisfaction felt by many classes through the United Kingdom, not just the middle class, and a desire to maintain state sovereignty, rather than adhere to European Union guidelines and ideals for democracy and free movement through the European Union. Vox noted that the expansion of the European Union in 2004 has led to a surge in immigration to countries that are overall wealthier, such as the United Kingdom. This combined with the economical collapse of countries, such as Greece and Italy, and subsequently, the degradation of the Eurozone.
However, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which is more of an extreme right-wing party, has specifically targeted certain groups, such as Muslims living within the U.K. The intense and targeted rhetoric of the UKIP has allowed the Tories to gain popularity over the UKIP currently, as their more nuanced rhetoric, although still anti-immigration in a sense, is not completely exclusive, allowing certain groups of immigrants in but with stipulations. In May of 2017, the Tories gained 550 seats throughout the different councils within the United Kingdom.
The rise in popularity of the centre-right party, The Tories, within the United Kingdom is a unique situation and this type of success for the centre-right party has not been as prominent in France. There needs to be a certain set of conditions for the centre-right party to rise to power. This must include the existence of a country that has seen a rapid influx of immigration, particularly lower and middle-class immigration recently, as the UK has only seen such levels of immigration beginning in 2004. Furthermore, a country with a centre-right party must also not have completely exclusive rhetoric, as this will diminish their base; instead, their rhetoric must be carefully crafted to allow for nuances to immigration policy.
For example, in France, this can be seen with Francois Fillon, a presidential candidate for the 2017 presidential elections. Throughout his campaign for President of the Republic, Fillon continuously vowed to protect traditional values, relying on a historical Jacobin past, and wanted a quota system established for immigration within France. In stating so, Fillon mirrored the sentiments of The Tories in the United Kingdom, as he did not completely vow to cut off immigration or single out groups as his counterpart did (Marine Le Pen). By relying on traditional values and a connection to Christianity, Fillon is able, in part, to justify restrictions and nuances to his immigration policy, in turn solidifying his base for this particular policy issue.
The centre-right party in Italy, Forza Italia, led by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has run on a widely-known anti-immigration platform, with Berlusconi stating that “Migrants are a social bomb.” Italy has experienced a similar situation as the United Kingdom, as Italy has also seen an influx of immigration with around 600,000 migrants coming to Italian shores from 2015 to 2018. Ilvo Diamanti, a political science professor at the University of Urbino, attributes a rise in fear of immigration to the timing of elections, stating that “1 in 2 Italians feels afraid during this time,” later explaining the cause of fear to concerns “about job[s] and unemployment.” This fear becomes even greater for less powerful communities, particularly the elderly who are concerned about a growing population and a lack of funds necessary for an adequate pension.
In The University of Chicago Press Journals’ “How Can Mainstream Parties Prevent Niche Party Success? Center-Right [sic] Parties and the Immigration Issue,” Sergi Pardos-Prado argues that “economic constraint is the only thing that significantly helps centre-right parties to mobilize their constituency and significantly harms radical right parties,” as what he refers to as “radical” or extreme right parties might represent an economic and cultural risk for the voter, where the promises of an anti-immigration platform by a centre-right party still promote change in behaviour but maintain a protective identity over the market.
In this way, both Forza Italia and Les Républicains can have a strong basis in their respective countries, provided that the economic constraints exist. For Italy, we can see a very high poverty rate (almost 30 per cent) but for France, the unemployment rate is still relatively low and the poverty rate is set at almost 14 per cent as of July 2019. Thus, in the case of France, we can determine that the centre-right party might be able to gain more representation within the French political system if these economic constraints, unemployment and poverty rates, see an increase.
However, all of this is not to say that the centre-right party has to place its values strictly on nationalism and anti-immigration tendencies. Within Germany, for example, the Christian Democratic Union or the CDU serves as the centre-right party and has adopted a more open view on immigration. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s border to refugees, letting in an estimated 1 million individuals. However, its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), aims to put a limit of 200,000 refugees that can be taken in by Germany annually. The joint commission of the CDU and CSU also want to take in refugees with special skills, similar to the United Kingdom, where individuals would be required to find a job that can pay for their living expenses before applying for a German visa.
Compared to other European parties that aim to completely cut off immigration, the CDU specifically has a generous policy in regards to immigration, which can be attributed to the economic circumstances in Germany. Currently, the employment rate in Germany is set at 3.2 per cent, where it can be assumed that there is not a lot of fear, as opposed to Italy, the United Kingdom, or France. However, Germany still does have a large poverty rate, where 15.5 per cent of the population can be considered in poverty. The fear of immigration, thus, still exists in the context of Germany. It is not necessarily of the number of immigrants coming to Germany, but the type of immigrants coming to Germany, as the CDU policy aims to provide entrance to Germany for “skilled” immigrants.
In discussing the existence of centre-right parties within the European context, concepts of nationalism and immigration policy become intertwined, as immigration policy is almost always based off of the idea of protecting national interests, traditional values, and a historical past. From the popularity of the Tories in the United Kingdom and Brexit, it is clearly seen that rising immigration to the United Kingdom and a collapse of the Eurozone through Greece and Italy has led to the Tory party’s rise, where these economic constraints paved the way for Brexit.
Similarly, in Italy and France, the utilization of anti-immigrant sentiments by Forza Italia and Les Républicains allows individuals to feel fear of an impending economic crash, which can only be attributed to an uncertain economic present situation. In Germany, the centre-right party becomes an anomaly, as the CDU may not feel the pressure as greatly to align itself with anti-immigrant or extremely nationalistic sentiments due to the relative stability of Germany’s labour market but still needs to appease to the threat of the quality of jobs available within the country.
From the cases of the centre-right parties in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany, it can be seen that centre-right parties can exist within the European political system, given that there is unease and instability within the market or society overall, as this will allow for centre-right parties to gain popularity when extreme right parties provide too much of a risk for the general population.
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