I recall Angus Roxburgh, the BBC journalist and author of the 2003's Preachers of Hate: The Rise of the Far Right, saying once that if fascism ever manages to return to haunt the political landscape of Europe it will not come in the form of eccentric Second World War nostalgia freaks marching around with brown shirts and swastika armbands but instead probably make its appearance in sharp suits, ties and generally looking much like any other normal run-of-the-mill politician. Take a glance at any photograph of Marine Le Pen right now and you will wonder whether she has been listening to those comments of Mr Roxburgh.
At one stage last year the opinion polls were predicting that Madame Le Pen could potentially come top in the first round of April's French presidential election. While the possibility of that has receded somewhat, she is still riding high in the polls. One of the most recent ones which appeared in Libération earlier this month had her sitting on 19.5% - not enough to get her into the May 6 run-off but still frightening that one in five voters in the home of liberté, égalité et fraternité desire a fascist in the Palace.
While many liberal journalists like to hold their head in their hands and wonder aloud as to how we ended up at this point, in truth the answer is by no means shrouded in mystery. Mainstream French politicians have over the years contributed to the legitimisation of FN politics, and few moreso than Monsieur Sarkozy. Writing in the Guardian last year, Pierre Haski highlighted how the UMP president had made the decision long ago to combat the FN leader "on her own ground," a policy which in practice meant adopting a strategy that was the antithesis of anti-fascism.
Rather than wage a war against the ideas the FN promotes, the French President decided to borrow some of those ideas and make them his own. He introduced a ban prohibiting Muslim women from wearing garments that cover their faces. He spoke of how the "racaille" of the immigrant suburbs of Paris needed to be 'Kärcherised'. A hardline stance on immigration became a central component of the UMP agenda. In 2010 France witnessed the demolition of scores of Roma camps and the forced deportation of hundreds of Roma.
The preposterous tactic of fighting fascism with fascism has not paid off for Sarko. While his poll ratings have improved in recent months, he still trails the Socialist Party candidate François Hollande. That Marine Le Pen presently commands such a substantial level of support should not be a surprise - bring extreme right politics into the mainstream and you drag extreme right politicians there with you. Now, with the FN having performed a PR job on itself and put forward a photogenic forty-something female as its public face, we are forced to contend with the fact that the mainstream's failure to oppose racist politics is now dangerously coupled with the reality that the Front National is the main choice for French voters seeking an alternative to the PS and UMP.
Troubling though this all may well be, it remains important not to get too carried away with the threat posed. Personally I doubt the capacity of the far right, in France and elsewhere, to push itself beyond the status of a protest vote (even a sizeable protest vote). I say this for two reasons. Firstly, there is the matter of their incompetence when it comes to organisation. There seems to be a tendency on the extreme right to fracture once any sign of success occurs. Secondly, at the risk of sounding naive, I don't think the people of modern Europe would choose to go back down that fascist route. The present time - several years into the worst economic crisis in living memory - should be the perfect time if you fancy yourself as your country's latest reactionary dictator yet the political centre ground seems to have held right across Europe.
Even in France, home of our continent's most prominent reincarnation of 1930s political thuggery, the Front National does not hold a single seat in either the National Assembly or the Senate. Of France's seventy-four seats in the European Parliament, Madame Le Pen's rabble can only get their backsides on three of them. And when Le Pen the elder did actually make the second round of the French presidential election in 2002, even the hideous figure of the corrupt Jacques Chirac was able to take 82% of the vote in the run-off (incidentally, some elements on the ultra left must never be let forget nor forgiven for proposing the dangerous tactic of not voting at all against Le Pen).
Back at the end of 2010, following the success of the Sweden Democrats in the general election in their country, I wrote a piece on this site where I stated that the real threat from the right in Europe came not from the FN or the BNP, but from the Berlusconis and the Camerons and the Sarkozys - those figures on the 'respectable' right who would unashamedly take on some of the policies of the extreme right in order to stem their growth. One might argue that in desperate times this could count as the lesser of two evils, but does the deported member of the Roma community care whether they were dumped out of France by a UMP or an FN administration? No. And therein lies the danger.
Yes, the success of the Front National is an embarrassment for the majority of French citizens. Yes, we on the left would obviously prefer to see the FN wiped off the face of the French political map. But do I think in the short, medium or long term this party could genuinely take power in France? No. Do I think that there is a single far right party in Europe capable of taking power? No. The real threat exists elsewhere.
The spectre haunting the continent right now is the spectre of an increasingly populist mainstream centre-right and it is they that hold state power in the majority of European countries. Whether it is Cameron's mix of anti-EU posturing abroad and massive cuts at home, Sarkozy's attempts to steal the FN's clothes by doing his best impression of Le Pen or Mario Monti's bizarre dictatorship of the 'experts' in Italy, the centre-right is doing damage while the far right merely talks about what damage it would like to do.
At this point we arrive at the big problem for those of us in my camp: has Europe's left got a strategy for turning the rising right-wing tide? Mobilising against the pantomime villains of 'the fash' will never be a problem for socialists in any country; getting the centre-right out of power will be a much tougher job. If there is a strategy then I have certainly not heard it yet. Perhaps they are hiding it for the right moment. Maybe they are still in the process of drawing one up. Possibly, and sadly I suspect this might be the right answer, there isn't actually any strategy to speak of whatsoever. Now has to be the time for Europe's left to come together, rediscover their spirit of internationalism and put forward a coherent social democratic vision for the EU. Are they capable of such a grand masterplan? Time will tell. For now, kicking Sarkozy's backside out of the Élysée Palace in May would be a positive start to the fightback.