On October 26, French populist right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen visited Budapest and met with current Hungarian President Viktor Orbán with the hope to boost her popularity and publicity among right-wing voters in France.
One of the most historically nihilistic comments Le Pen made during the meeting was paralleling Orbán’s anti-European Union (EU) and conservative governance with the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. The 1956 Uprising resulted from Hungarian communist leader Imre Nagi’s decision to launch economic reforms, leading to the Soviet Union’s military intervention. Comparing Orbán’s anti-EU policies to the Uprising, and therefore portraying the EU as a Soviet-styled hegemon, can be easily echoed in post-communist countries. On the other hand, by rephrasing Orbán’s position against the EU as an action that is emblematic of Hungary’s national sovereignty, the 1956 Uprising reference was also hoping to appeal to some liberal and neoliberal voters.
Despite numerous ideological affinities with the French National Rally (formerly National Front), Orbán has tried differentiate himself from his French counterpart. When questioned in an interview whether allying with the National Rally was foreseeable in 2019, Orbán answered, “Absolutely not! I have nothing at all to do with Madame Le Pen.” Drawing the line at interacting with far-right parties not in power reaffirms Orbán’s mainstream position while avoiding the required responsibilities and commitments to form a new transnational rightwing movement that could potentially damage Hungary’s diplomatic connections with respective state officials. Certainly, Orbán openly disagrees with the current French President Emmanuel Macron on many issues, yet that has not translated into Orbán threatening Macron by supporting one of his major opponents–until the October 26 meeting.
Next year’s French election demands that both Le Pen and Orbán reconsider their strategies when approaching each other. Following years of Le Pen’s efforts to consolidate her party into a stronger political force, she has deradicalized her policies and language. However, such a shift has yielded space for a more radical contender to fill that void. Eric Zemmour has risen under precisely such circumstances to challenge Le Pen’s position. As a candidate with little political experiences, Zemmour appeared to be very popular among the right-wing voters and posed a challenge for Le Pen. Considering Orbán’s reputation among the European right, especially those who hold strong nativist values, Le Pen’s visit to Hungary serves this purpose of adjusting to regain support. On the other hand, meeting Orbán is an action that reassures the French voters of Le Pen’s experience on international affairs and credibility as a potential future head of state.
Orbán has very different reasons for erasing the boundary he set between him and Le Pen. The upcoming election has the potential to elect a new French president. Since Orbán’s government is currently experiencing many disputes over immigration and anti-LGBT+ laws with the EU, it requires Orbán to reinforce his connections with other European right-wing leaders to offset that criticism. Even if Le Pen does not win the French Presidency next year, her presence in the European Parliament could be critical for Orbán and Fidesz’s future. After withdrawing from the moderately conservative European People’s Party earlier this year, Orbán is indeed seeking new allies in the Parliament who are also strongly skeptical of the EU. Without such an alliance, Fidesz may lose its platform and fall to a fringe party in the Parliament. These factors made Le Pen a more desirable partner than Zemmour.
With increasing interactions between European far-right politicians, one might view this as evidence of an emerging far-right transnationalist trend. Indeed, all these far-right movements and leaders share common resentments toward the EU and they broadly advocate for a strong European nationalism. There is also evidence that they are willing to pause disputes to pursue that common agenda. However, it is questionable how committed they are in establishing such alliances, both within and out of the EU framework. In Orbán’s case, he also has not ruled out the possibility of cooperating with Zemmour, or even with Macron. The meeting between Orbán and Le Pen suggests a diminishing boundary between transnational far-right movements and mainstream populist politics, yet it should not be considered as a signal that far-right transnationalism has worked efficiently.
Jiahe You is an international student from China, pursuing a Master’s in International Affairs at Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.