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Europe’s hard right seeks to capitalize on unrest in France

Far-right politicians across Europe have seized upon civil unrest in France to demand the EU toughen its migration policy.

In Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki used the events in France as an opportunity to justify Warsaw’s rejection of the EU’s proposed migration pact, which a majority of member countries endorsed last month but Hungary and Poland blocked at last week’s European Council summit.

“Shops looted, police cars set on fire, barricades in the streets — this is now happening in the center of Paris and many other French cities,” Morawiecki tweeted during the summit. “We don’t want such scenes on Polish streets. We don’t want scenes like this in any city in Europe.”

Morawiecki also blasted Brussels at a press conference on Saturday for “trying to force Poland” to accept the migration pact, which would introduce mandatory admission quotas for asylum seekers and require EU members who refuse to recieve them to pay into an EU fund to accommodate them elsewhere.

“These are the consequences of the policies of uncontrolled migration which we are being forced to adopt,” he said after tweeting a video with apocalyptic scenes from France juxtaposed with bucolic images filmed in Poland.

The Polish prime minister was not alone in using the unrest in France — which took place after a police officer shot and killed a French teenager of North African descent during a police stop in Nanterre last Tuesday — to make points domestically.

Italian Undersecretary for the Interior Nicola Molteni, a member of the right-wing League party, said the riots in France were “a certification of the failure of uncontrolled migration and a warning for the rest of Europe.”

Molteni said it was necessary for Europe to do more to “manage, plan, guide the migratory wave,” and cited his country’s tough stance on migration as a model.

“We must focus on work and on the balance between rights and duties,” Molteni said. “You cannot come to Italy and do as you please: There is an identity to be respected.”

Hans Kundnani, a Europe analyst at Chatham House, said Morawiecki and Molteni’s reactions to the unrest in France were “exactly what you’d expect” from a far right that has been steadily gaining traction among voters and consolidating power in recent years.

Anti-immigrant populist Viktor Orbán has been in office in Hungary since 2010, while Morawiecki’s Law and Justice has governed Poland since 2015. In France, the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen enjoyed enough support to qualify for the second round of the country’s presidential elections in 2017 and 2022, and in Italy far-right firebrand Georgia Meloni has been prime minister since last year.

Kundnani said the far-right had been especially effective at getting the center-right to change its stance on migration policy.

“Since the 2015 refugee crisis the far-right has seized on these episodes to demand tougher measures,” Kundnani said. “And they’ve been quite successful at getting support from the center-right in many parts of Europe: For the past decade they’ve gone much further in tightening migration laws and asylum policy.”

Campaigning on French riots

Chatham House’s Kundnani said it was likely that far-right parties would use the latest unrest in France to drum up popular discontent and push center-right parties to adopt more extreme positions.

“The reason the center-right has been seeking to tighten immigration policies since 2015 is precisely because it sees that far-right arguments around identity, immigration and Islam have had traction among the public,” said Kundnani.

“This is the lesson they have learned from the rise of ‘populism’: That they need to be ‘tougher’ on immigration,” he said. “And that shift is also the basis of their increasing cooperation with the far right, particularly in coalition governments.”

Far-right parties are already part of coalition governments in countries such as Finland and provide external support for governments like Sweden‘s.

In Spain, where the far-right could potentially govern with the center-right Popular Party after national elections later this month, the leader of the far-right Vox party used the riots to call for tougher immigration policies.

“Europe is threatened by mobs of anti-Europeans who smash police stations, burn libraries and stab to steal a mobile phone, who are unwilling to adapt to our way of life and our laws,” said party leader Santiago Abascal. “They think that we are the ones who have to adapt.”

Abascal denied the idea that poverty or police brutality could be root causes of the riots, arguing similarly marginalized Christians never committed acts of violence and accusing “radical Muslims” of being behind the disturbances that could lead “an actual civil war” to break out in France.

He added minority groups such as the LGBTQ+ community were better off with homophobic far-right parties than with centrist political forces that chose to ignore “what is happening in France.”

“Homosexuals feel more protected by my party … than by Mr. Macron: The people France has imported make it difficult for them to be able to walk down the street,” Abascal said. “In contrast, in Hungary and Poland [members of the LGBTQ+ community] can go for peaceful strolls because in those countries they actually monitor who comes in.”

“Europe cannot continue to accept immigrants from Muslim countries,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, which will hold regional and national elections next year, Tom van Grieken, president of the ultranationalist Vlaams Belang party, spoke about the riots in France and copycat incidents in Belgium this weekend.

The far-right leader said the unrest reflected “the left’s multicultural dream is a multicultural nightmare for citizens.”

“These are areas where our society has been pulled away by mass immigration and the government has little control,” he argued, adding that Belgian authorities “don’t have the guts” to deal with the problem. “Real change can only be guaranteed with Vlaams Belang at the wheel.”

Chatham House’s Kundnani said that, in addition to influencing domestic politics, the far-right was already shaping the EU.

“The fact that Ursula von der Leyen’s centrist Commission has a European Commissioner for Promoting our European way of life says it all,” Kundnani observed. “That commissioner’s job is basically to keep migrants out and the existence of that post highlights that migration is no longer being treated as a difficult policy issue, but rather as a direct threat to the European way of life.”