Inspired by the tens of thousands that have ‘liked’ far-right political groups such as France’s National Front party online, a new study published Monday examined who exactly are the supporters of Europe’s increasingly popular nationalist factions.
When Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right Front National party, posted a wall photo of herself on her official Facebook page last week, 417 people jumped to ‘like’ it, 30 people ‘shared’ it, and 95 people left comments, one of which read “President Marine” with a heart shaped emoticon next to it.
Inspired by the type of endorsements exhibited on Le Pen’s Facebook page, British think tank Demos conducted the first-ever large-scale quantitative study of who exactly comprises Europe’s increasingly popular far-right political factions. Published on Monday, the report found that the far-right’s growing support base is young and online.
Even though the study looked at samples from several countries across the continent, the report could have particular significance for France, which is set to hold presidential elections in May.
“There are tens of thousands of people who are affiliated with [France’s far-right political party] the Front National or who have ‘liked’ the Front National. What we wanted to do was to find out who these people are”, said Jonathan Birdwell, one of the study’s authors.
Perceived erosion of national culture and values
Placing targeted ads on Facebook group pages dedicated to 14 different far-right political parties or grass roots organisations, Demos was able to collect data from more than 10,000 users, in 11 European countries*.
What they discovered was a growing support for hardline nationalist politics across Europe – particularly among men and the under 30s. Disillusioned with their own governments and the European Union, many of the survey’s respondents listed immigration, the perceived erosion of national culture and values, and Islamic extremism as their chief reasons for sympathising with far-right populist movements.
More important still, the study also points out that the number of people supporting far-right political groups online often outweighs actual party membership. While many in the past would argue that this data could be attributed to the fact that the Internet allows people to express themselves with a certain degree of anonymity, these supporters are not merely ‘liking’ from the safety of their own homes – their online activity carries into offline activism as well.
According to the study, 67 percent of online far-right supporters voted for their party in the last general or national election. On top of that, the report’s authors found that the percentage of respondents that said they participated in protests or demonstrations was significantly higher than the EU average.
“It signifies a change in the nature of politics – that people, particularly young people, relate to politics in different ways. Formal membership will never go away, but what is happening is that these online groups represent another layer of support that can be used for electoral success”, Birdwell pointed out.
Possible implications for French presidential elections
This could mean that traditional means of gauging political trends, such as opinion and exit polls, have underestimated just how many people support the far-right in different countries across Europe.
More specifically, the study’s findings could also have serious implications for France’s fast approaching presidential elections, which are slated to be held May 22, 2012.
Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National, already made headlines in France earlier this year after an opinion poll published in March revealed that she could possibly lead in a presidential race against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, with 23 percent of the vote. Although her numbers have waned in recent months, Birdwell stated that this data could be unrepresentative due to the relatively untapped base of online supporters.
“The number of people who support the Front National online is very high – among the highest of all the groups we sampled”, Birdwell said. “Sixty-five percent of our sample [of Front National supporters] voted in the last election. That’s a significant number that could translate into votes this time around.”
Yet one drawback of the study is that it only measures the growing success of far-right parties such as the Front National by how many people sympathise with them. However, as Douglas Yates, a political scientist at the American University of Paris, points out, success can also be measured by how the popularity of a party or group's policies influence what's being discussed on the national stage.
Far-right shaping national agendas
According to Yates, the Front National's rhetoric on immigration and the perceived spread of Islam in France has already shaped a number of talking points that are expected to arise during the presidential campaign.
“The more success the Front National has using [immigration and Islamophobia] as a rallying point, the more the right will try to appropriate it. [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and [Interior Minister] Claude Guéant have already shown their willingness to use it as a point of debate,” Yates said.
The data, which was collected in the months prior to when the euro zone crisis took a turn for the worse in August and September, found that economics played a small role in why people chose to support parties such as the Front National. However, as countries across Europe struggle to deal with the backlash of the bloc’s weakening economies, Birdwell admits that this could galvanise even more support for France’s far-right ahead of the elections.
*Counties included in the study: France, United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Belgium.