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“The rise of far-right parties across Europe and their entrance into government at the local, if not regional or national, levels pose challenges for established civil society actors”, – writes Dr Seongcheol Kim ( Far-Right Local Governments and Civil Society: Findings from France and Italy – Seongcheol Kim, 2023 (sagepub.com). He analyses early findings from an ongoing research project based on two case studies of far-right local governments in small industrial towns in France and Italy: Hayange and Sant’Agata Bolognese. In this interview, Dr Kim provides insights into his research design and on how far-right parties influence civil society.
PSR: You suggest that a trend of “far-right parties making increasingly visible attempts to appeal to the world of labour and trade unions” is quite a new phenomenon. What are the roots of this process?
Dr Seongcheol Kim: As I write at the beginning of the introduction, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Parties like Vlaams Blok in Belgium and Front National in France openly courted organised labour with their May Day events in the mid-1990s. In Italy, the history of this courting goes much longer, not only with the experience of fascist corporatism but also the fact that the postwar Movimiento Sociale Italiano had its own trade union front, the CISNAL. When the MSI became Alleanza Nazionale, CISNAL turned into UGL, which is still the fourth largest trade union centre in Italy and has closely cooperated with Matteo Salvini’s Lega in recent years. In France, too, one could draw a longer arc with the long history of yellow unionism, which also fed into the pro-Pétain “Chartist” tendencies during the Second World War and provided a basis for the right-wing to far-right “independent unions” that developed a significant presence in parts of the automotive sector in postwar France.
In the context of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Salvini’s Lega, you discussed mainstreaming far-right politics. Could you clarify the meaning of this concept?
There is a sizable literature around the mainstreaming thesis, which I refer to in the paper. Scholars like Aurélien Mondon have shown how the FN (later RN) has come to take on an agenda-setting function in French politics, with governments of the centre-left and centre-right vying to outbid each other on issues like law and order and immigration. Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign and numerous measures taken by the Valls government were cases in point. But while the FN/RN has been consistently excluded from coalitions by other parties, the far right in Italy has been much more integrated into centre-right alliances since the mid-1990s, ever since Silvio Berlusconi formed an electoral bloc with Alleanza Nazionale for the 1994 elections. Notably, the Lega under Umberto Bossi eschewed a radical right image at the time but ultimately joined Forza Italia and AN in government (contrary to Bossi’s pre-election promise of “never with the fascists”). Even though that first coalition government was short-lived, the three-party setup has lasted with shifting accents up to the present, with Fratelli d’Italia taking up the post-fascist mantle in recent years and the Lega under Salvini having turned into an overtly radical right party.
In both cases, it seems clear that far-right local administrations are not interested in wooing established local trade unions with their deep roots in the industrial history of each region.
You analyse interviews conducted in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland, focusing on two towns in France and Italy. What was the rationale behind that selection and your research design?
The six-country study was on far-right actors in the workplace with a focus on the automotive industry, featuring a case study of a factory in each country. The exploratory research design was based on a diverse-case selection geared toward examining a wide-ranging universe of national contexts to allow for an initial mapping out of far-right strategies at the workplace level, which was a novel contribution to the literature beyond the single-country studies that have been done previously. Within this wider research project, which was published as a book titled The Far Right in the Workplace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), the Early Results article focuses on two towns in (or near) which the factory case studies for France and Italy were located, which were also selected due to the local context of far-right mayors who have been re-elected with overwhelming shares of the vote: Fabien Engelmann (FN/RN) in Hayange and Giuseppe Vicinelli (independent, later Lega) in Sant’Agata.
How have European far-right parties generally affected trade unions and civil society actors at the local level in the countries you analysed?
This varies a lot across countries and localities, and it goes beyond the scope of this research. In the book, too, we examined the local level only in certain factory case studies where far-right actors of various stripes held the mayoralty, most notably in France, Hungary, and Italy. In France and Italy, the local contexts in Hayange and Sant’Agata Bolognese had some similarities as small industrial towns governed by the far-right after decades of left-wing rule (more so in Sant’Agata, with the Bologna area being the historical stronghold par excellence of the Italian Communist Party, whereas the Moselle region in which Hayange is located has always been more mixed). In Hungary, the situation is different altogether because Jobbik came to power in Dunaújváros and Eger (the two towns we examined) in alliance with centre-left parties as part of anti-Fidesz coalitions. Notably, trade unions and civil society practitioners in Hayange and Sant’Agata observed in the interviews a deterioration in relations with the local administration after the far right won the mayoralty, which I discuss in the article.
What were the more specific patterns you have uncovered in the case of small industrial towns in France and Italy, such as Hayange and Sant’Agata Bolognese?
A striking similarity between Hayange and Sant’Agata is the coexistence of two faces: on the one hand, the far-right-led town hall cultivates a caring image with highly visible measures for improving or prettifying the local infrastructure; on the other hand, there is a far-right politics of suppressing by various means (including financial pressure) civil society initiatives deemed unpalatable, such as left-wing cultural or charity associations. This latter aspect is even more pronounced in Hayange, which has gained notoriety for the town hall’s union-busting and the annual pork festival as a form of cultural exclusion of the town’s Muslim minority. It should be noted, however, that these experiences are hard to generalize even within these countries. Engelmann has always been something of a special case due to his left-wing past and the vindictive anti-trade unionism that he has become known for in office. With the RN winning mayoralties in larger towns like Perpignan in the south, more systematic analyses will be needed across localities and regions. The same goes for the Lega, with its wider reach in terms of holding executive office at the local and regional levels, including in cities such as Ferrara (where, anecdotally speaking, there are similar accounts as those encountered in Sant’Agata).
A striking similarity between Hayange and Sant’Agata is the coexistence of two faces: on the one hand, the far-right-led town hall cultivates a caring image with highly visible measures for improving or prettifying the local infrastructure; on the other hand, there is a far-right politics of suppressing by various means (including financial pressure) civil society initiatives deemed unpalatable, such as left-wing cultural or charity associations
What are the most significant strategies used by far-right politicians to approach trade unions at the local level?
When it comes to trade unions specifically, the strategy in Sant’Agata seems to be more about bypassing or ignoring the trade unions to the extent possible, whereas Hayange has gotten considerable notoriety with reports in national-level media about widespread harassment of trade unionists in the public sector. In both cases, it seems clear that far-right local administrations are not interested in wooing established local trade unions with their deep roots in the industrial history of each region. Another question is to what extent far-right local governments try to form alternative (yellow) unions or analogous administration-friendly initiatives in civil society from their positions of power. While there are not so many clear-cut indications of this in the two cases examined, this is a question that deserves more systematic investigation across contexts.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
It bears emphasizing that this is an Early Results article, but even so, I think it provides numerous insights into how far-right parties govern in these two industrial towns and their relations to civil society. The interplay of a performatively enacted claim to serve the entire community with public goods on the one hand and the exclusion of undesirable elements of civil society on the other is a notable finding and may help us to understand the success of these far-right local administrations in getting re-elected on overwhelming majorities after their initially surprising victories with razor-thin margins in 2014. There is certainly a lot of potentials here for more wide-ranging comparative research on the basis of these results, both within the two countries in question and beyond.
Dr Seongcheol Kim is a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Kassel and a visiting researcher in the Center for Civil Society Research at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. His research is centred on the application of post-foundational discourse theory for the study of party politics from a comparative European perspective, especially concerning nationalism, populism, and radical democracy.