February 2, 2024 - 7:00am

The Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) this week went some way in easing the tensions that have arisen between its leadership and Marine Le Pen of France’s Rassemblement National. Yet it remains clear that while parties on the European Right may share some common ground, they are far from united. 

Trouble began with a meeting in Potsdam earlier this month, in which a far-Right Austrian activist called Martin Sellner presented a plan for the expulsion of migrants from Germany, even in cases where they had received citizenship rights. The presence of high-ranking AfD officials at the summit has provoked nationwide demonstrations over the last fortnight, with an estimated 1.5 million people protesting against the party. At the same time, the AfD’s popularity has sunk to a six-month low.

The call for “remigration” also drew condemnation from Le Pen, who has rebuilt the RN since the days of her father’s leadership, when allegations of racism and Nazi apologism surfaced regularly, to the point where it is now France’s most popular party. “We have never advocated for ‘remigration’ in the sense of withdrawing French citizenship from people who have acquired it,” she said last week, adding that there was “strong opposition” between her party and the AfD. 

The RN’s shift to the mainstream, steered by Le Pen and party president Jordan Bardella, and its resulting gain in popularity indicate that her family name no longer carries electoral toxicity. Indeed, increasing numbers of French voters now agree that immigration is too high, as the number of arrivals to the country is boosted by workers and incoming students.

While Le Pen has taken her party away from its far-Right origins, the AfD has arguably travelled in the opposite direction. Having begun as a group of economists protesting against Germany’s decision to drop the Deutschmark in favour of the euro, the AfD has gradually become a much more militant organisation. Its parliamentary leader in the state of Thuringia is Björn Höcke, who was sanctioned last year for his use of a slogan popularised by the Nazis. Though his party faction has now been sidelined, around 40% of AfD members identified with it.

Le Pen’s criticism of the AfD’s flirtation with deprivation of citizen rights for those with immigrant backgrounds underscores her belief that the RN’s future is as a national conservative force, free from any taint with fascism or antisemitism. The AfD, increasingly divided, still attracts those whose relationship with neo-Nazi ideas is at least ambiguous.

The AfD claimed this week that Le Pen confused the meaning of “remigration” covered at the Potsdam meeting with the German party’s official definition. It has been compelled to clarify its position, stating that deportation referred to “foreigners who were legally obliged to leave the country” rather than all residents from an ethnic-minority background. AfD representatives are now set to meet with RN officials next Tuesday to address the dispute.

Europe’s New Right parties, forecast to dominate the European elections in June and force change on the liberal foundations of the European Union itself, are not a monolith. Besides their many similarities, they differ in national culture, in leadership style and in elements of their ideologies. Even if the disagreement has been resolved in some small way, Le Pen’s open criticism of the AfD points to her rejection of hard- or far-Right politics, while her German counterparts keep the door open to just such currents. It is an increasingly obvious division within a movement set to define this year’s political shift on the continent.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.