Politics & Society
Cordoned Off: The Far Right in France and Germany
Far-right European parties have recently rung up a spate of victories, while a formula for containing them continues to elude mainstream policymakers.
One option had been a cordon sanitaire, which brings together normally disparate parties to exclude extremists from power. In France, this approach was used for generations to isolate the National Rally (formerly Front National) under its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and, now, his daughter, Marine. Centrist parties in Germany have referred to a Brandmauer, or firewall, to describe their unwillingness to work with the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Regardless of the term used, both strategies have walked a fine line of preserving democratic order while risking growing voter alienation from traditional parties seen as unable or unwilling to tackle festering issues, such as immigration and the rising cost of living, that cause widespread public unease. The growing attraction of the far right, however, shows that these containment strategies have failed.
A Breached Firewall
Since the AfD’s founding in 2013, other parties represented in the Bundestag have refused to cooperate with the far-right party. German history has made clear that a party with at least one prominent member who can legally be called a fascist has no place in a governing coalition. It was with this politician, Björn Höcke, in mind that the current Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman, Friedrich Merz, first invoked the term Brandmauer, though the concept had been in place for years. He said in 2021 that “with me, there will be a firewall against the AfD”. But Merz also stoked controversy this past summer when, in an interview, he reiterated commitment to the firewall for federal and state governments but insinuated that cooperation could happen at the municipal level. Merz quickly backed off his comments following substantial backlash, including from within his own party, and asserted that the CDU would, in fact, not work with the AfD in any way. Although Merz’s point was largely rhetorical, the first electoral victory of an AfD candidate for a district administrator’s office had already occurred several weeks earlier.
There have been two other notable cracks in the firewall. The first appeared in 2020 in Thuringia, where the AfD has a commanding lead in the polls at 34%. AfD legislators in the eastern state’s parliament helped secure the election of Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democrats as state premier, marking the first time AfD votes brought about a consequential political decision. The outcry was swift and loud, and Kemmerich resigned within days. The second crack, again in Thuringia, emerged in September when AfD support proved key for passing a seemingly-mundane tax bill, introduced by the CDU. CDU legislators insisted that they were unaware of AfD’s intentions before the vote, but argued that they should be able to advocate for their constituents regardless of who else may agree.
Merz’s remarks and the events in Thuringia have prompted a larger debate among the German electorate about the firewall. A recent poll shows that a majority still backs it, although nearly a third of CDU voters do not. Unsurprisingly, almost all AfD supporters oppose the firewall. There is also an East-West divide on the issue, which reflects the impact of Germany’s Cold War-era history on its approach to the far right. Current polling in the five states that comprised (along with East Berlin) the former East Germany shows the AfD as the strongest party. While it would be simple to call the rise of the far right an eastern problem, in October 2023 the AfD won 14.6% of the vote in the Bavarian state election, 18.4% in Hesse’s, and is polling at 21.9% nationally. Ironically, the party has co-opted the firewall and uses it to claim that other parties are not respecting the will of the people, all while being spared the exposure that comes with actual governance. The tactic has been particularly effective in eastern Germany, where the post-reunification years have left many voters feeling disenfranchised. The firewall is likely to come under increasing pressure next year, when three of the five eastern states go to the polls, and in 2025, when federal elections take place. There will be immense pressure to uphold the firewall while convincing voters that the concerns driving them to the AfD can be addressed without supporting the party itself, which will be difficult as the national government continues to fumble its fiscal, climate, and migration policies.
Not Holding Back
In France, the concept of the cordon sanitaire against the far right has been tried, tested and found wanting. President Jacques Chirac warned when introducing the strategy in the 1980s that not maintaining it would be a “deadly trap”, but four decades later the National Rally (RN) is the second-largest political group in the National Assembly. And in the second round of last year’s presidential election, RN chief Marine Le Pen won 41% of the vote, 8 percentage points more than she garnered in her 2017 campaign. Her party’s draw continues to grow.
In October, the RN exploited an opportunity to broaden its appeal further by claiming that other parties were not acting to protect the French people’s best interests. Given the opportunity to present in parliament its priority pieces of legislation, one of the proposed bills presented by the RN was to support women with endometriosis, a policy that President Emmanuel Macron originally floated. That put other parties in a bind since any opposition would show them to be prioritizing their antipathy to the RN over women’s health, among the other issues presented that day. A majority, however, did just that, though right-leaning legislators on three occasions voted with the RN. One of them noted after the breach of long-standing policy that there is “no cordon sanitaire around our ideas. We have only one course of action, vote with what we deem useful for the French.” In other words, the cordon sanitaire does not work.
The RN’s ploy, in conjunction with an intense public relations campaign, has successfully eroded the impression that the far right is a threat in France. In fact, more of the French now see the far left as a threat.
Still, the RN’s intentions remain suspect, especially after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. The party’s founder, after all, used to repeatedly downplay the Holocaust, had a long history of antisemitic comments, and inculcated party members with his world view. And yet, RN members of parliament recently marched with other French lawmakers to protest an upsurge in antisemitic acts across France following Hamas’ brutal attack on October 7. Renaissance party spokesperson Benjamin Haddad remarked to the Financial Times that for Le Pen “this is the final piece of strategy to detoxify her party by banishing its antisemitic past … it would be the last dam to break." And his concern is not unfounded: in the latest poll, over 57% of the French public find that Le Pen’s approach to the Jewish community to be sincere.
Further reflecting that concern, Julien Aubert, a former member of parliament for The Republicans, bluntly noted, back in 2021, that “the cordon sanitaire is a notion that does not work.” He urged a focus on “le barrage” since that would “impede victory”. The current strategy, he said, is just “refusing to debate”.
As the leading mainstream conservative party and the one best placed to offer an alternative to far-right voters, the Republicans should not underestimate the RN’s ability to normalize itself into the French political landscape. Le Pen is polishing her image and building her party’s credibility in an era in which image is key. Once sharp and combative in public, she now presents a calmer, more approachable figure. As she and her party successfully rebrand themselves, The Republicans must grapple with internal political issues and select their next party leader. The performance of their most recent presidential candidate, who won less than 5% in the 2022 election, was an embarrassment. The result reflected a disconnect between the electorate and the traditional right, on which the thriving far right has seized. The Republicans will need to develop a new strategy to fight the RN in the next presidential election in 2027.
In the meantime, a failing struggle to contain the far right continues. Exclusion has proved ineffective in France and is being challenged in Germany. Any approach to political extremists demands a deliberate strategy that goes beyond just ignoring them. A cordon sanitaire may be a first approach, but once a party becomes too big to ignore other parties must adapt or risk losing not only voters, but democratic legitimacy.