BERLIN — American conservatives are assembling for the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) until Saturday, and in addition to the newly powerful luminaries of America’s right wing, they are also hearing a number of European speakers. These stars of Europe’s populist movements may have been invited to Maryland to emphasize the rise of the right worldwide, but their fate in Europe tells a very different story.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of Front National leader Marine Le Pen, is being prominently featured. CPAC’s website also lists the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, and Hungarian-U.S. citizen Sebastian Gorka, who was born in London.
In Europe, all three are considered to represent a far- or populist-right that has mostly run out of momentum for now.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen
Stephen K. Bannon once proclaimed her a “rising star,” and Sarah Palin disclosed a “political crush” on her. In 2007, at age 22, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen became the youngest person ever to be elected to French Parliament.
But the party she campaigned for until only recently, the National Front, has become a toxic brand in France once again and is in turmoil. As the niece of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is deeply associated with the party that lost last year’s presidential elections to liberal contender Emmanuel Macron and his Republic on the Move movement.
Marine Le Pen has triggered a number of scandals but drew especially harsh criticism from all sides last spring when she said that France was “not responsible” for deporting Jews during the Holocaust. Many saw the remarks as part of a string of comments by European far-right politicians in France, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere to cover up historical facts that do not fit into their nationalistic agendas.
Le Pen’s comments referred to July 16-17, 1942, when French police deposited about 13,000 Jews from Paris in an indoor stadium called “Vel d’Hiv.” Many of them were later deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The direct responsibility of French police — rather than German occupying forces — is a stain on French history and national memory.
To her critics, Le Pen’s remarks revealed the true face of the National Front, which was founded in the early 1970s by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.” Marine Le Pen has tried to distance herself from him to make the National Front more appealing to a wider range of voters — though his super PAC still funded the party throughout the elections.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen distanced herself from the remarks, too, in an interview last year with my colleague James McAuley. But she has also long represented an even more conservative wing of France’s far-right than Marine Le Pen, and has temporarily suspended her political career since last year’s electoral defeat. While Marion Maréchal-Le Pen cited personal reasons for her departure, observers have suggested a break between her and her less conservative aunt.
Right-wing firebrand and populist politician Nigel Farage resigned as leader of his U.K. Independence Party shortly after the country’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016. The decision by British voters to leave the 28-member bloc, built through treaties after World War II, shocked nations around the globe and plunged the country into political and economic uncertainty. Farage was one of the referendum’s primary architects.
The vote, however, virtually destroyed the U.K. Independence Party, which only had one goal: a referendum on whether to leave the E.U. or not. Many never expected it to actually happen — and when it did, Farage’s party failed to present a vision for the country.
As my colleague Amanda Erickson recently wrote, the Brexit vote has not necessarily made the British prouder of their country, but rather more self-conscious and anxious.
One report, published by Demos, a think tank, found that a “relatively significant proportion” of voters who opted to have the United Kingdom exit the E.U. are starting to change their minds. Focus groups, the authors write, “distinctly captured an emergent sense of regret among a relatively significant proportion of leave voters. We saw a growing anger at having been forced to take such a momentous decision, without sufficient understanding of the consequences.”
The rise of Sebastian Gorka to his brief stint as a former White House aide still baffles many Europeans.
In Hungary — a country not exactly known as a liberal bastion — his ambitions never appeared to match his credentials. His career in Hungarian politics faced repeated setbacks, and he eventually settled for research positions elsewhere, even though questions have been raised over his academic qualifications.
Gorka was born in London but holds Hungarian and U.S. citizenship through naturalization. Throughout the last years, he has been considered a close ally of former White House chief strategist Bannon, who left Trump's staff in August, one week before Gorka. Both men had previously worked at the right-wing Breitbart News.
To many, Gorka’s exact role in the White House was never fully clear. While there were conflicting reports about whether he was able to obtain a security clearance or keep it during his stint with the Trump administration, he appears to have had little say over policies related to what he claimed was his matter of expertise: security issues and counterterrorism.
Gorka was listed for months as wanted for arrest by Hungarian police, including during his time in the White House. The original entry listed few details, but it appeared to indicate that the warrant stemmed from an incident of “firearm or ammunition abuse” and was issued in September 2016, less than two months before Donald Trump was elected president. The outstanding arrest warrant became widely known in mid-January when a member of the public accidentally came across it in the police database, but the entry disappeared earlier this month.
In Hungary, Gorka now appears to be less sought-after than in Maryland.
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