Copying the far right doesn’t help mainstream parties. But it can boost the far right

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Werner KrauseDenis Cohen and Tarik Abou-Chadi


Cross Europe, radical-right parties remain on the rise. In France, Marine Le Pen is again in the runoff for the French presidency against Emmanuel Macron. This time, polls suggest a much closer race than in the 2017 election. Just over a week ago, Viktor Orbán’s populist nationalist Fidesz party won a landslide in Hungary’s parliamentary elections.

Parties of the far right not only have realistic chances of entering and leading governments in many countries, their success continues to spread across the entire continent. Even Spain and Portugal, long considered exceptional because of the absence of radical-right forces, have recently seen the emergence, respectively, of Vox and Chega.

These trends have sparked debates about how to halt or even reverse the rising public support for the radical right. Party strategists and commentators have argued that mainstream parties of both left and right should engage in so-called accommodative strategies – in other words, adopting tougher policies on immigration and integration. Had mainstream parties been less progressive on migration, the argument goes, the radical right would never have been able to gain a political foothold. Turning even belatedly to more hardline policies on immigration should win voters back to the centre ground.

Indeed, mainstream parties in western Europe have, over recent decades, increasingly veered to the right on immigration and integration in response to the successes of the radical right. Many view the 2019 Danish general election as a prime example of this strategy’s promise. The Social Democrats co-opted the anti-immigration agenda and the far-right Danish People’s party suffered a severe electoral defeat.

However, there are several reasons why simply adopting more hardline policies will not convince voters to switch back to supporting mainstream parties. It can, as some experts warn, legitimise far right parties’ views and their political agenda. To borrow from Jean-Marie Le Pen, why would voters choose the copy when they can have the original?

There are examples that suggest that fighting the far right by adopting its policies is not as promising as many assume. In Germany in 2018, the Bavarian mainstream-right CSU echoed many of the hardline immigration policies promoted by the far-right AfD. In the subsequent state elections, the CSU suffered massive vote losses while the AfD surged and secured 10.2% of the vote. In Spain, the embrace of more anti-immigration policies by mainstream-right parties Partido Popular and Ciudadanos has not stopped the ascent of Vox. And in France, despite centre-right parties’ discourse being preoccupied for decades with issues relating to national identity and migration, Marine Le Pen is now the most significant electoral force on the right.

We investigated this question across 12 western European countries, drawing on data going back to the 1970s. Combining a wide range of survey data, we analysed the effect that mainstream parties’ tighter immigration policies had on the radical right’s electoral support. We also asked whether the electoral context had a bearing on far-right voting patterns. We looked, for example, at whether support for far-right parties is affected by the existence of a cordon sanitaire, or how salient the immigration issue has been on the party agenda.

Based on this broad and comparative analysis, we found no support for the idea that vote shares of the radical right decline if mainstream parties on either the left or the right promote tougher policy stances on immigration and integration. If anything, the data shows that even more voters tend to defect to the radical right once the latter is a consolidated actor in the electoral arena. Overall, our findings suggest that fighting far-right parties by adopting their migration policies is at best fruitless and at worst counterproductive. By legitimising a framing that is associated with the radical right, mainstream politicians can end up contributing to its success.

This undoubtedly leaves mainstream parties in a precarious position as they struggle to halt the rise of the radical right. In fact, the success of the radical right appears remarkably immune to mainstream parties’ behaviour. The lack of viable alternative strategies may explain why mainstream parties continue to play copycat. The dangers of doing so will once again be on the table in France on 24 April. After a first-round election campaign dominated by the arguments of extreme-right challenger Éric Zemmour (who is to the right of Le Pen’s National Rally), Macron will now have to fight for a return to power on the radical right’s home turf.

  • Werner Krause is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vienna; Denis Cohen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research; Tarik Abou-Chadi is associate professor of European politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford

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