Continental drift

Why is the centre right winning elections across Europe and the USA?

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics

The impending victory of the Gaullists in France is the latest in a succession of right-wing election victories across the developed world.

There is George W Bush in the USA, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Jose Maria Aznar in Spain, the Netherlands’ swing to the right, Jacques Chirac’s win in the French presidential elections and the Socialist Party’s subsequent defeat in the French National Assembly. It looks as if the ‘Third Way’ governments of Bill Clinton, Lionel Jospin, Romano Prodi – and, who knows, perhaps Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, too – will be remembered as one-hit wonders of the 1990s.

A chasm opened up between America and Europe when Bush was elected, with anti-US riots in European capitals. Differences over global warming following the Kyoto summit and international trade let Europe’s centre-left leaders give the nod to anti-capitalist protesters to attack the ‘Toxic Texan’ Bush. Denunciations of American unilateralism expressed European frustration at the Bush administration’s bullish attitude. But following recent election results in Holland, Austria and France, it is US commentators who are denouncing Europe’s lurch to the right.

Appearances of a swing to the right, however, are deceptive. In his new book The World We’re In, one-time Third Way ideologue Will Hutton attempts to give differences between Europe and America an ideological gloss. Europe invests heavily in social capital, says Hutton, while America has abandoned industry and the poor to an uncaring free market.

As it turns out, Bush has injected vast amounts of government cash into US industry (under the pretext of fighting the ‘war on terror’), and has protected American steel with tariffs, and farms with new subsidies. While the ‘free market’ president is protecting industry, the ‘socialist’ Europeans are busy promoting private enterprise.

For the French left, the electoral collapse has been particularly shocking. The Socialists hoped that their big mobilisations to ‘Stop Le Pen’ would help them reconnect with their core activists, and reach out to the wider electorate. But that was always a pipe dream. Mobilising support for ‘the crook’ against ‘the Fascist’ only showed how insignificant they had become. The far left, having briefly enjoyed the
collapse of the old order, quickly changed their minds and set about restoring France’s centre right consensus by campaigning for Chirac.

Europe’s swing to the right looks dramatic only if you take its prior swing to the left seriously. In fact, the governments of the Third Way in Britain, Germany, Italy and France were marked by their disavowal of state socialism and embrace of conservative ideas. That voters prefer the real conservatives to the recent converts represents little change in social attitudes.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read on:

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

Too late, the French left have a cause, by James Heartfield

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