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Meloni and Le Pen are Europe’s far-right odd couple

Meloni and Le Pen are Europe’s far-right odd couple

Domestically, Meloni has put culture wars first, defending conservative values against the 'LGBT lobby'. Le Pen has been focused on left-wing-style budget giveaways and tough talk on security, while distancing herself from her father’s homophobia and antisemitism.

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Last Updated : 29 May 2024, 04:56 IST
Last Updated : 29 May 2024, 04:56 IST
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By Lionel Laurent

Is France’s Marine Le Pen ready to get along with Italy’s Giorgia Meloni? It seems like an odd question. Both women have led their respective hard-right parties away from their post-fascist roots and closer to the mainstream while still attacking immigrants, the “woke” left and Brussels bureaucrats. Both are set to win in their respective countries in next week’s European elections. “We agree on the main things...Taking back control,” the French opposition leader told Italian paper Corriere della Sera on Sunday. Days earlier, the Italian prime minister repeated her intent to unite Europe's right against the left.

And yet the very fact that Le Pen has extended a hand to Meloni, offering to combine their distinct voting groups into the European Parliament’s second biggest, underscores how they’ve struggled to coexist politically. Actually pulling off such a tie-up would send a very bleak signal about the European Union’s prospects with the shadow of Donald Trump’s looming return, and has added to the urgency of French President’s Emmanuel Macron’s call for European voters to “wake up” to the far-right threat and back a fresh push for closer integration.

But this is more likely the opening shot in a complex political dance that benefits more mainstream parties like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s center-right group.

Credit: Bloomberg

Credit: Bloomberg

Nationalism by definition doesn’t travel very well, and there are some pretty big differences (and egos) to overcome. On foreign policy, as Russian strikes rain down on Kharkiv, Meloni’s Atlanticist support for Ukraine contrasts with Le Pen’s past ties to Moscow and opposition to sanctions — more in tune with Meloni’s coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, whose party sits in Le Pen’s voting group. Domestically, Meloni has put culture wars first, defending conservative values against the “LGBT lobby,” while sticking to a constructive line on the economy. Le Pen has been focused on left-wing-style budget giveaways and tough talk on security, while distancing herself from her 95-year-old father’s homophobia and antisemitism to win over voters fed up with Macron. (Armchair Freudians will note that Le Pen has also broken politically with her niece, Marion-Marechal, whose party has joined Meloni’s voting group.)

These differences matter in the long-slog consensus-building of the European parliament, where the only way to disrupt the current coalition — left, right, liberal — would be a “union of the right” tilting power away from the left, chipping away at the Green Deal and hardening immigration policy. But they also matter at home. Euroskepticism doesn’t sell like it used to — Frexit, Italexit and even Geert Wilders’ Nexit are off the menu — and the race to move into the mainstream is creating new divides among old allies. Hence why Le Pen last week cut ties with the AfD, the German far-right party, after its lead candidate said not all Nazi SS members were criminals. If there’s one thing a party whose original incarnation was set up by a Waffen-SS member and a Holocaust denier can’t afford, it’s the Nazi label.

Which is why the concept of a big tent for nationalists seems like a stretch. Even now, when centrists like Macron are on the back foot, it still seems likely that the cracks on the right will continue to show: The AfD is too toxic for Le Pen, but Le Pen currently looks too toxic for Meloni. And it’s the Italian premier who is in the more enviable position as troublemaker-turned-kingmaker — she has a seat at the leaders’ table and if she’s politically agile enough has a shot both at influencing the mainstream right and peeling off smaller rivals. To invite Le Pen into her tent would risk others leaving it. As Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has put it, increasing the political weight of Meloni’s group could also paradoxically translate into diminished political influence.

One politician hoping to benefit from a nationalist vote in flux is Von der Leyen, the current head of the EU’s executive arm who is running for a second term. She’s been clear that her European People’s Party stands ready to work with far-right parties that respect the red lines of cooperation: Pro-EU, pro-Ukraine and pro-rule of law (so, yes to Meloni; no to Le Pen). The optimism here is that the proverbial barbarians at the gates can turn Roman.

After all, Wilders’ victory in the Netherlands has shown how building a government requires compromise; the likely next Dutch prime minister is a seasoned government official. The danger is that, much like other center-right parties that have tried to tack right only for their base to melt like an ice cream cone on a hot day, the EPP itself falls victim to shifting political sands. As France elects a new president in 2027, with Le Pen the current favorite, this may be the calm before the storm.

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