One of his aides framed the move as largely tactical, telling the newspaper Les Echoes that Macron hopes to “avoid a radicalization of public opinion.” A small shift to the right, in other words, will help defuse the attractiveness of the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), ahead of the 2022 presidential elections.
It’s possible that, entering the third year of his presidency, Macron — who ran on a platform of “neither left nor right” — is simply showing his true colors. Left-leaning members of his own party have long raised concerns about his views on immigration, including in 2018, during debates over a restrictive new law that has made it more difficult to obtain asylum in France, and that increased detention periods for new arrivals.
Whatever the mix of cynicism vs. genuine convictions, adopting tougher rhetoric and policies on immigration — with the goal of staving off the far right — has become a common tactic for Europe’s centrists. Macron’s comments came on the heels of a decision by incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to give the European Union’s most senior migration official the title of “Vice President for Protecting our European Way of Life” — language that echoes the rhetoric of Europe’s far-right populists. And von der Leyen is no hardcore nationalist: When she was a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet, she defended Germany’s pledge to open its doors to migrants and asylum seekers. But she, too, seems to think that concessions to anti-immigrant sentiment are necessary.
But are they? The results are mixed at best, research suggests. Often, shifting right for tactical reasons ends up backfiring on centrists who do not believe in punitive immigration policies. Not only do the centrists fail to siphon off voters from far-right parties, they even increase support for those parties. And even the centrists who do benefit from the tighter policies may not grasp the dynamic they perpetuate: Such moves push the entire political system closer to intolerant nationalism — solidifying the normalization of xenophobia that is already well underway.
It is far from clear that centrists have to move right to stay afloat, as some conservatives have suggested. In one important study, Kai Arzheimer, a professor at Germany’s University of Mainz, looked at 16 European center-left parties with a range of immigration policies to figure out how those positions affected working-class vote share. Arzheimer found (as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has pointed out) that parties that stayed with pro-migrant positions did as strongly among working-class voters as those who shifted right. In another study, Carl Dahlström and Anders Sundell, professors at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, examined 290 Swedish municipalities in which centrist parties adopted various stances on immigration, in response to the positions of right-wing parties locally. The centrists who took “tougher” positions did not help themselves but rather galvanized support for the far right by making voters believe that anti-immigrant policies are mainstream.
Macron and von der Leyen are hardly alone. Sweden’s Social Democrats tacked right on immigration in the lead-up to last year’s elections, supporting a significant cut in refugee arrivals out of fear that its voters would drift to the far-right Sweden Democrats. The tactic didn’t quite work: Although the Social Democrats still came out on top, they finished with 28.4 percent, their worst score in a century. The far-right Sweden Democrats, in contrast, won 17.6 percent, a significant jump from their 2014 performance.
Denmark, which held elections in June, is an especially important case study of the mixed results such a strategy can bring. Since the early 2000s, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have backed a spate of restrictive immigration policies, hoping to slow the ascent of the far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP), which surfed anti-migrant sentiment to break into the political mainstream. In the 2001 election, the DPP became the third-largest party in Parliament, backed a conservative coalition government and shaped immigration laws for the next decade; it consistently improved its performance, election after election — until this year. The 2001 vote was a turning point for the SPD, too, marking the first election since 1924 in which the party failed to secure a plurality of seats.
As the SPD watched its relevance wane, the party threw its support behind anti-immigrant policies: a 2016 law that allows authorities to seize cash and valuables from asylum seekers, ostensibly to help the state finance their benefits; the nation’s 2017 withdrawal from the U.N. resettlement program, in which states volunteer to assist UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency) with repatriation, integration and resettlement; and the notorious 2018 “ghetto package” of legislation, which included a requirement that some residents of communities with large immigrant populations send their children to preschools with mandatory instruction in “Danish values.” The SPD also supported last year’s ban on the burqa — the full-face veil worn by some 200 Muslim women nationwide, and a law requiring new citizens to shake hands at their naturalization ceremony (aimed to change the behavior of Muslims who decline on religious grounds to touch members of the opposite sex).
The party was successful in Denmark’s June elections: An SPD politician became prime minister, and a left-leaning, SPD-led coalition won a plurality of parliamentary seats. But at what price? The party did move to the left on welfare policy and climate during the campaign. Yet when I reported from Copenhagen in the run-up to the election, many voters expressed disillusionment that a party that had once championed minority rights had betrayed its values out of political calculation — and legitimized far-right rhetoric and racist policies.
Did they have to do so, to survive? A dominant narrative quickly emerged that, yes, the SPD only won because it had co-opted the right’s harsh immigration agenda. But it’s unclear if that’s true. According to exit polls, only 12 percent of DPP voters switched to the SDP — which was also hampered by a financial scandal, costing it popularity — and even more DPP voters voted for the traditional right wing, while a small percentage voted for two new far-right groups.
“Immigration was only part of the story,” Karina Kosiara-Pedersen, a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen, told me after the election. The party’s positions on welfare and climate also helped pull back voters, she said.
Could the party have won on those bread-and-butter progressive issues alone, without veering so far to the right on immigration? We may never know, but its hard-right turn has steep societal consequences.
The race to lowest-common-denominator positions on immigration has a dangerous logic, even if the goal is to protect other progressive priorities. In embracing rather than contesting the far right’s intolerance, centrists make a dangerous worldview mainstream, without any evidence of clear electoral gains.