LE CHESNAY, France — At a rally last week near the Palace of Versailles, France’s largest far-right party, the National Front, deployed
the familiar theatrics and populist themes of nationalist movements across Europe.
A standing-room-only crowd waved the national flag, joined in a boisterous singing of the national anthem and applauded as speakers denounced freeloading foreigners and, with particular venom, the European Union.
But the event, part of an energetic push for votes by France’s surging far right ahead of elections this week for the European Parliament, also promoted an agenda distant from the customary concerns of conservative voters: Why Europe needs to break its “submission” to the United States and look to Russia as a force for peace and a bulwark against moral decay.
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While the EU has joined Washington in denouncing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the chaos stirred by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Europe’s right-wing populists have been gripped by a contrarian fever of enthusiasm for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
“Russian influence in the affairs of the far right is a phenomenon seen all over Europe,” said a study by Political Capital Institute, a Hungarian research group.
It predicted that far-right parties, “spearheaded by the French National Front,” could form a pro-Russian bloc in the European Parliament or, at the very least, amplify previously marginal pro-Russian voices.
Pro-Russian sentiment remains largely confined to the fringes of European politics, though Putin also has mainstream admirers and allies on both the right and the left, including Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, and Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor.
Putin’s authoritarian leanings and pugnacious nationalism have generated widespread and diverse opposition to him across Europe; at a gay-pride event in Brussels on Saturday, marchers wore masks featuring the Russian president’s face, colored pink and daubed with blue eye shadow and red lipstick.
Even among far-right groups, the sympathy for Russia and suspicion of the U.S. are in part tactical: Focused on clawing back power from the EU’s bureaucracy, they seize any cause that puts them at odds with policymakers in Brussels and the conventional wisdom of European elites.
But they also reflect a general crumbling of public trust in the beliefs and institutions that have dominated Europe since the end of World War II, including the Continent’s relationship with the U.S.
“Europe is a big, sick body,” said Alain de Benoist, a French philosopher and a founder of the Research and Study Group for European Civilization, based in Paris.
De Benoist, a leading figure in a French school of political thought known as the “new right,” said Russia “is now obviously the principal alternative to American hegemony.”
Putin, he added, is perhaps “not the savior of humanity,” but “there are many good reasons to be pro-Russian.”
Some of Russia’s European fans, particularly those with a religious bent, are attracted by Putin’s image as a foe of homosexuality and decadent Western ways. Others, like Aymeric Chauprade, a foreign-policy adviser to the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, and the keynote speaker at the party’s rally near Versailles, are motivated more by geopolitical calculations that stress Russia’s role as a counterweight to U.S. power.
Russia has added to its allure through the financing, mostly with corporate money, of media, research groups and other European organizations that promote Moscow’s take on the world.
The U.S. also supports foreign groups that agree with it, but Russia’s boosters in Europe, unlike its leftist fans during the Cold War, now mostly veer to the far right and sometimes even fascism, the cause Moscow claims to be fighting in Ukraine.
Hungary’s Jobbik, one of Europe’s most extreme nationalist parties and a noisy cheerleader for Moscow, is now under investigation by the Hungarian authorities amid allegations that it has received funding from Russia and, in a case involving one of its leading candidates for the European Parliament, that it has worked for Russian intelligence.
No longer dismissed, as they were for decades, as fringe cranks steeped in anti-Semitism and other noxious beliefs from Europe’s fascist past, the National Front and like-minded counterparts elsewhere on the Continent are expected to post strong gains in this week’s election, which begins on Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands and then rolls across Europe through Sunday.
But they are unlikely to form a cohesive bloc: Nationalists from different countries tend to squabble, not cooperate.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a group zealously opposed to the EU, and a critic of U.S. foreign policy, is already engaged in a bitter feud with Le Pen.
But Farage and Le Pen have at least found some common ground on Russia. The British politician recently named Putin as the world leader he most admired, “as an operator but not as a human being,” he told a British magazine.
Le Pen has also expressed admiration for Putin and called for a strategic alliance with the Kremlin, proposing a “Pan-European union” that would include Russia.
In general, said Doru Frantescu, policy director of Votewatch Europe, a Brussels research group, the affections of far-right Europeans for Putin are simply opportunistic rather than ideological, “a convergence of interests toward weakening the EU.”
This convergence has pushed the far right into a curious alignment with the far left. In European Parliament votes earlier this year on the lifting of tariffs and other steps to help Ukraine’s fragile new government, which Russia denounces as fascist but the EU supports, legislators at both ends of the political spectrum banded together to oppose assisting Ukraine.
“Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, said in a speech to Russia’s Parliament in Moscow last year.
When Crimea held a referendum in March on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Chauprade joined a team of election monitors organized by a pro-Russian outfit in Belgium, the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy.
The team, which pronounced the referendum free and fair, also included members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; a Flemish nationalist group in Belgium; and the Jobbik politician in Hungary accused of spying for Russia.
Luc Michel, the Belgian head of the Eurasian Observatory, which gets financial support from Russian companies, but promotes itself as independent and apolitical, champions the establishment of a new “Eurasian” alliance, stretching from Vladivostok in Russia to Lisbon in Portugal and purged of U.S. influence.
The National Front, preoccupied with recovering sovereign powers surrendered to Brussels, has shown little enthusiasm for a new Eurasian bloc.
But it, too, bristles at Europe’s failure to project itself as a global player independent from America, and looks to Russia for help.
Resistance to U.S. power has long and deep roots in France, particularly on the left, which, during the Cold War, often sided with the Soviet Union.
The French right, fiercely opposed to communism, has been less hostile in the main to the U.S. but, on its fringes, often sees America as a
threat to French power, values and lifestyle.