Does Big Nationalist Showing in French Local Elections Spell Big Putin Bloc in EU Parliament?

Last month, Russia invited representatives from the European far-right parties to Crimea as observers of the referendum on whether the predominantly Russian-speaking state wanted to leave Ukraine to become part of Russia. The observers came to Crimea despite widespread denunciation from the U.S. and other Western nations of the referendum as “illegitimate” and “illegal.”

By John Gizzi | March 31, 2014

As Europe and the world watched in awe (and in some places, in fear) on Black Sunday, the National Front (FN) made its best-ever showing in two decades in the second round of France’s municipal elections, as Hollande’s Socialists were routed while holding on to Paris, electing its first female mayor, Anne Hildago.

But in capturing control of at least one dozen city halls and winning an estimated 1000 local councillor seats Sunday, the FN and their leader Marine LePen raised a far more significant question for Europe and the rest of the world to ponder: Will their hard-line immigration stand and Euro skepticism and that of their sister parties throughout the 28 European Union member-nations translate into an even bigger vote in races for the European Parliament May 22-25?

And should the FN, Austria’s Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) gain significant ground in the races for the 766 seats in the European parliament, will it strengthen the clout in Europe of the leader most of the nationalist parties have voiced admiration and support for—Russia’s strongman President Vladimir Putin?

One of the great paradoxes of contemporary European politics is the “Putin flirtation” by LePen, Austrian Freedom’s Heinz-Christian Strache, Jobbik’s Gabor Vona, and Nikolaos Michaloliakos of Greece’s Golden Dawn. Because of their hard-line stance against immigration, major financial institutions, and the EU itself (whose parliament they now vigorously seek), LePen and Company are almost always referred to in the press as the “far right.” In addition, many conservative activists in non-European countries have voiced admiration for parties such as the FN and leaders such as LePen, likening them to the U.S.-based “tea party” movement.

But it is difficult to fathom how anyone who considers himself or herself to be a “tea partier” or “conservative” in the United States could find common ground with the former KGB colonel who said in 2005: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

“Putin is admired by the European nationalists because of his animosity toward the major financial institutions, which has a touch of anti-Semitism in it,” said Dr. Ruth Wodak, Austrian communications specialist at Georgetown University in Washington who has written extensively on nationalist parties in modern Europe, “and he’s admired by them because he’s the strong leader they presumably want to be.”

Philip Stephens of the Financial Times concluded as much when, watching a Europe wracked by economic uncertainty for five years and 26 million Europeans unemployed, he wrote: “[I]t is also not hard to imagine that a benign autocrat might have done a better job than 27 elected governments to end the protracted agony of the eurozone.”

Stephens also noted that with Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, “there is a thin line between right-wing populism and fascism.”

Less than three months before the 27 Eurozone nations go to the polls (28th member Croatia has not had its parliamentary seats proportioned), a just-completed poll by the research firm Ifop shows LePen’s FN actually leading both major parties in races for its 76 seats in the European Parliament with 24% of the vote. In Hungary, a poll of Jobbik showed its approval rating at 14%, up from 10% in a previous poll and thus making it the third-most popular party in the country.

The Economist estimated in January 2014 that “anti-EU populists of the left and right could take between 16% and 25% of the parliament’s seats, up from 12% today.”

Should these figures translate into a larger nationalist bloc in Strasbourg (France) and Brussels (Belgium), where the parliament meets, it is easy to see where Putin and Russia could benefit. The chances of the eurozone developing an energy policy to eventually end dependence on Russia would be diminished. So would the idea of the EU enacting a Megnitsky Act similar to that of the U.S. and Canada, and thus barring individuals, businesses, and government officials from the EU member states for human rights violations.

Most immediately, under the Treaty of the European Union, the parliament will for the first time elect the President of the European Commission.

Friends of Vladimir

According to an analysis by the Political Capital Institute, of 21 European countries with nationalist parties labeled “far right” by the press, fourteen of the parties (two parties each in Italy and Slovakia) are “committed” to closer alliance with Putin’s Russia. Similar parties in seven other countries are “open” or “neutral” regarding Russia and the remaining three—those in Finland, Latvia, and Romania—are hostile to Russia.

The most successful of the parties make little secret of admiration for Putin’s Russia and support for a closer relationship.

Marine LePen, for example, has called for an energy and military partnership with Russia.

“Respecting neutral status, international law and national taxation,” she said while running for president of France (November, 2011), “we propose the creation of a sovereign Pan-European Union with the participation of Russia and Switzerland…, the United States and Turkey would not be part of that entity.”

Hungary’s Jobbik called for a good rapport with “an increasingly influential Russia” in its 2010 party platform. In May 2013, party leader Gabor Vona spoke at Moscow’s Lomonosov University and called Russia the guardian of European heritage in contrast to what he dubbed the “treacherous European Union.”

Greece’s Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos, speaking on Voice of Russia on December 16, 2013, declared: “Greece and Russia are natural allies. In return for its security, Greece must provide Russia access to the warm seas.”

“In these countries the main features of the relationship(s) between the [nationalist parties] and Russia have been apparent for quite some time,” concluded the Political Capital Institute. “These include the policy of ‘Eastern opening’ that emphasizes economic interests, a peculiar ideological bonding, and pushing Russia’s agenda on international forums.”

Most of the parties in Europe backed Russia during its strike against Georgia in 2008 and last year denounced any involvement by the West against Syrian strongman and Putin ally Assad.

Earlier this year, noted Paris-based author and analyst Elena Servettaz, LePen “met with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin and gave a speech to students at the diplomatic school of the Russian Foreign Ministry She also made her most important statement for export: ‘Russia saved Syria.’”

Servettaz, herself a Russian expatriate to France, also cited LePen’s statement on Syria last year that “‘The interests of France are not affected, therefore we should not intervene.’” She believes that Paris should “build a relationship not with Washington but with Moscow because they have a lot in common in terms of their ‘civilized and strategic plan.’”

Last month, Russia invited representatives from these parties to Crimea as observers of the referendum on whether the predominantly Russian-speaking state wanted to leave Ukraine to become part of Russia. The Austrian publication “Heute” (March 12, 2014) reported: “The Russian organization known as the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy & Elections has invited several MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] from right-wing parties, including the FPÖ [Austria] and Vlaams Belang [Belgium], Front National and the Lega Nord [Italy] to observe the referendum in the Crimea.”

The observers came to Crimea despite widespread denunciation from the U.S. and other Western nations of the referendum as “illegitimate” and “illegal.”

Is Putin Bankrolling Supporters in Europe?

“Russian history is stuffed with examples of the Kremlin funding anything that it thinks might influence Western orthodoxies,” observed Craig Copetas, Paris-based journalist with Quantz News and author of the best-selling Bear Hunting With the Politburo and The Comintern is a good example. Beginning in 1825, Tsar Nicholas I’s Okhrana started infiltrating, underwriting and managing counter-revolutionary movements based outside Russian borders. They weren’t very good at it, until after 1917.”

“According to the explanation widely shared by the media,” concluded the Political Capital Institute study, “Russia provides material support for some European far-right parties. However, no evidence has surfaced to prove the account conclusive.”

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. recently, Timothy Kirkhope, Conservative Party Member of the European Parliament noted, “while accepting that Russia will support left-wing parties and movements, as they did with the British Labour Party in the late 1970s and the ‘ban-the-bomb’ movement, it is factually incorrect to say they won’t do the opposite. They will put support behind NGOs [non-governmental organizations], entities and parties on the right if it furthers their goals.”

Like the Political Capital Institute, Kirkhope had no evidence that this is being done. But the speculation remains.

For now, it is safe to say the nationalist parties of the eurozone and Vladimir Putin do have common interests and that Moscow will be closely watching the European parliamentary elections in May.

John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.