Under Austerity a Young Generation in Europe Turns to the Far Right

Contemporary Europe presents a broad spectrum of seemingly intractable economic problems and a growing number of social ills. Policies of austerity compound the economic pain felt by ordinary Europeans, and act as a catalyst for problems like the demographic decline, abuse of power by police, and a host of other ills associated with times long past. But one of the most insidious results of the crisis and subsequent austerity policies is the growing allure for the political far right among young people across Europe, which could have major consequences in the future.

Many commentators have already written on the alarming rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece. With the bully pulpit from its seats in parliament and uniformed paramilitaries on the streets, Golden Dawn is a cause of immediate concern for all those they target. But beyond the demagoguery and violence, Golden Dawn is engaging in long-term strategies to win over the young—including children—to their ideology. Greek journalists have recently noted the growing number of teenaged Golden Dawn supporters and sympathizers; this is now compounded by official lessons given by the party to elementary schoolchildren. Under swastika-like Golden Dawn banners, children aged 6 to 10 were taught the bizarre alternate history central to the party's ideology, which selectively blends Greece's pagan and Christian past with strong doses of nationalism and xenophobia. With this educational component, Golden Dawn has created an alternate civil society that includes food and legal aid and blood banks—all for ethnic Greeks only. Considering the work of political scientist Sheri Berman on Weimar Germany, the growing robustness of this politically-charged alternate civil society potentially portends the fatal weakness of the state and society at large.

Hungary is not a member of the Eurozone, but was also hit with a severe recession in 2008 and 2009 and the Hungarian economy today remains on shaky ground. The neo-fascist Jobbik Party—which also embraces nationalism, uniformed paramilitaries, and bigotry—found support in the face of economic crisis compounded by austerity measures, rising from just 2% of the vote in national elections in 2006 to nearly 17% in 2010. The widespread support for this party is skewed generationally, with one third of Hungarian university students backing Jobbik. As one specific consequence of this, it was recently revealed that the student union at Eötvös Loránd University—ELTE, Hungary’s largest university and often regarded as its best—had been keeping tabs on incoming freshman with an offensive system of categorization. Religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation were all noted (with particular derision reserved for "Jews," "fags," "atheists," and "liberals") in addition to other commentary, such as the sexual attractiveness of female students. With high-ranking members of the faculty and student union permitting or authorizing this type of behavior, far right activists are incubated in Hungarian universities. If they accepted government scholarships, many graduates are now required by to stay in Hungary; if like nearly 30% of their compatriots they can’t find work upon graduation, Jobbik will surely welcome them with open arms.

Back in the Eurozone, contemporary France is frequently regarded as a positive case by many critics of austerity. In 2012, François Hollande was elected to the presidency and his Socialist Party won a majority in the National Assembly on a platform of economic growth as well as closing tax loopholes and ending tax cuts for the wealthy. However, joining the Socialist Party majority in the legislature were two members of the National Front, elected for the first time since 1997. Founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now headed by his daughter Marine Le Pen, the National Front is a far right nationalist party that is strongly anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic. The elder Le Pen did not run in the most recent election and his daughter was defeated both for the presidency and her parliamentary seat, but 22-year old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (granddaughter of the former and niece of the latter) won a seat in the National Assembly. And it was Marion's peers who helped sweep her into office—polls indicated that 26% of 18-24 year olds preferred her aunt as their President, more than Hollande or any other candidate. The current French government may be working hard to create jobs and growth, but so long as the economy struggles and the National Front keeps promising immediate employment growth, young people may continue to support the National Front at a "level that has never been reached before."

Support for the far right among young Europeans is hardly uniform, and these cases are some of the more exceptional. But with unemployment among youth in the EU at record levels and continuing to grow, the appeal of far right parties is likely to increase as well. The dangers to the political system will only continue to multiply as this new "lost generation" comes of age and continues to struggle to make ends meet.