MARINE le Pen’s strong performance at the French elections may not have won her the presidency, but it has laid bare a deep political divide in both France and the rest of Europe.  

Before Sunday's election, Le Pen’s party, the Rassemblement national or National Rally, had never amassed more than 30 per cent of the vote in national elections.

The 40 per cent of the vote she gained against incumbent president Emmanuel Macron proved that France has become the latest European country where a significant amount of the population is willing to vote for a party with extreme, far-right views.  

Other European powers have seen significant support for nationalist parties in the last ten years. Germany’s largest opposition party is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, which, like Italy’s The League party and Spain’s Vox party, pushes for strict anti-immigration policies, holds Eurosceptic views and entertains criticism of Islam.

While the United Kingdom lacks a nationalist party with as much popular support as their European counterparts, they do exist on the fringes of society.  

Experts have also warned that many of the factors that have helped fuel the rise of the right on the continent are present in Wales, and the threat of extremists cannot be discounted simply because they haven't made a significant electoral brekthrough.

Political extremisim in Wales has also been evidenced due to prosecutions such as that of Samuel Whibley, a 29-year-old from Ynys Môn who was convicted in March on terror charges.

Whibley was a member of far-right cell Oaken Hearth, and made pistol parts on a 3D printer, exchanged terror manuals and shared racist ideology on a Telegram channel

Encrypted messaging apps like Telegram or Wire are used by members of far-right groups to seek other like-minded individuals, and act as recruiting tools and echo chambers for those who find themselves drawn to arguments made by extremists. 

Members of supremacist or white nationalist groups, whether by encouragement or by radicalisation, take actions that they believe will ultimately lead to the creation of authoritarian governments.

These include leafleting, protests and marches, but can also include violent acts of terror, such as those which Whibley appeared willing to facilitate.

Nick Daines, an advisor for the Home Office’s Prevent programme, which aims to combat terrorism in the UK, told BBC News in 2017 that Wales was a “unique landscape” for far-right extremism.

Isolated parts of the Valleys were also described as “strongholds” for the far-right by Nick Bromage, co-founder of the neo-Nazi group Combat 18, who has since campaigned against the far-right with a new group, Small Steps. 

Hope not Hate, an advocacy group which campaigns against racism and fascism, released a report last year on the far-right in Wales which warned how poverty and a population feeling out of touch with politicians could lead to radicalisation.

In a survey, 46 per cent of respondents in Wales stated that they were worried about the arrival of new immigrants in their communities. As many as 48 per cent agreed that “discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against non-white people”. 

The same study found that a lack of trust in the Senedd and increasing poverty during the coronavirus pandemic has seen a sizeable proportion of the population become resentful and angry.

Only 35 per cent of people polled thought that politicians in the Senedd care about them, and just 23 per cent of Welsh women thought that politicians listen to them, compared to 36 per cent of men.  

A common tactic employed by recruiters and members of the far-right is to link economic problems with anti-immigration rhetoric.

READ MORE: Martin Lewis warns of 'civil unrest' over cost of living crisis

One of the reasons for Le Pen’s success in France this year stems from her decision to champion cost-of-living issues, which receives far more popular support from voters, and appeals to non-supporters more than her controversial views on immigration.

The financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Wales has been high, and 35 per cent of those surveyed in the Hope not Hate report state that they’ve had to dip into their savings in order to get by while 24 per have gotten into debt, and more than one in ten (13 per cent) had used a foodbank.  

The survey also identified a widespread national feeling of resentment, which has in the past seen a political shift towards the right in Europe.

It found 53 per cent agree that Wales and other devolved nations lose out to England. 38 per cent of the people surveyed wished to see Wales remain a part of the UK with greater devolved powers, and 10 per cent wished to see an independent Wales.

READ MORE: Enoch Powell and social justice: Is Gwlad "far right"?

Wider emotions were also measured and 60 per cent of people under 35 reported feeling a “deep loneliness” during the pandemic, and 69 per cent said they were worried about a lack of opportunities for children growing up today.  

While there is no reason to claim most of those disaffected with politicians, their personal circumstances or the economy will be attracted by the far right, or that positions held by mainstream parties on some of the issues identified do not enjoy popular support, Hope Not Hate fears the findings could suggest fertile ground for those seeking to exploit divisions. 

Rosie Carter, the group's director of policy, said: “The impact of Covid-19 has redrawn people’s relationship with politics and power – for some resentment and anger are brewing, and eating away at public trust.

"The economic scarring the pandemic will cause will not only harden existing challenges of poverty and deprivation, but could deepen divides between places and people, as the very real resentments and frustrations that people feel about their own lives are exploited by those who seek to divide.” 

But even with all these symptoms, Wales has not slipped into the far-right nationalism that is taking hold across Europe.

Jac Larner, of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, said while the most extreme parties have failed to make an electoral breakthrough in Wales that doesn't mean the idea that the a significant number of people may hold similar views can be dismissed. 

“Electoral success for far-right parties in Britain has largely been isolated to England and reached its zenith when the BNP achieved some localised successes in different parts of post-industrial England and won European Parliamentary seats in the English regions," said the researcher of voter behaviour and attitudes.

“Their success generally relied on exploiting tensions in communities that had experienced high levels of immigration in a relatively short period. Their vote share in Wales increased in this same period, but they couldn’t pick up local council or European seats here.

“This isn’t to say that voters in Wales are immune from many of the attitudes which are correlated to support for far-right parties. For example, survey evidence suggests levels of anti-immigrant sentiment is quite similar in England and Wales. Instead, this issue has generally been less salient for voters in Wales than in many parts of England."

READ MORE: Twitter algorithm 'amplifies' right-wing above left-wing voices, shows research

But Larner said when issues which the far-right has campaigned have been higher up the political agenda parties on the right have benefited.

“When the issue has been salient, we have seen far-right parties gain some electoral success in Wales, the closest being the 2016 Senedd elections when UKIP won seven seats on the regional lists.

"This was at a time when the issue of Europe and immigration was at its most salient, with the Senedd election taking place just seven weeks prior to the EU Referendum. Once these issues lost salience, we saw that UKIP, along with several other right-wing parties, fail to have any electoral impact in the most recent Senedd elections.” 

But he also cautions against only measuring the impact of the far-right on how they specifically do at the ballot box: "It is certainly true that electoral success is important, it’s not the only way these parties have an influence. The impact these parties have had on mainstream debate is perhaps of more importance than how they have performed at elections.” 


Carter, of Hope Not Hate, says societial divides needn't lead to divisive policies: "Our report paints a picture of a divided Wales, but the lines that divide us are not fixed. Supporting people and communities through economic recovery, investing in integration, rebuilding political trust and challenging racism in all its forms can help to bridge the divides.” 

What steps should be taken in Wales to avoid a possible slide into far-right nationalism?

Disaffected voters, energised by the frustration of the pandemic, could present a problem for First Minister Mark Drakeford’s vision of Wales as a welcoming country.

The lessons of the French election show the Welsh Government it cannot be complacent.

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