The Rise of the Extreme Right in Europe: Psychoanalytic Interpretations


Picture of Marine Le Pen of Front National, overall winners in the French European Election

This is part one of 3 blogs on this subject of the rise of the extreme right in Europe. The first blog will address Splitting, the secondwill discussJouissance (Lacan’s term for excessive enjoyment) and the third The Collective Unconscious.

Part One  Splitting

In the recent European elections there was a big rise in far right parties, for example the Front National winning in France and UKIP in the UK. Their support seems to arise from people experiencing economic deprivation from austerity measures and unemployment. The far right plays on the fear that this will get worse, and points the finger at uncontrolled immigration, claiming immigrants will swamp their country, steal jobs, and exploit welfare benefits, public housing and services. These parties also claim that the centralised European bureaucratic apparatus is increasingly disempowering citizens, and they demand anti-globalisation measures, and that power is taken back to national levels. Europe has seen this before and is haunted by the spectre of the past. This blog takes a psychoanalytic perspective, to add to our understanding of the dynamics that lead to extreme nationalist parties gaining support.


Melanie Klien (an Austrian- born British psychoanalyst) studied infant behaviour which led to the psychoanalytic understanding of splitting. She observed how infants could not tolerate some feeling within themselves, and would split the world into two parts in order to separate the parts they could and couldn’t tolerate, intowhat she called ‘good objects’and ‘bad objects’. For example, the mother who fed the hungry infant would become the ‘good breast’for the infant, and when the mother withheld the milk, the infant would see her as the ‘bad breast’. The mother was split into two part objects- good and bad – as the young age the infant could not hold the ambiguity of mother being both ‘good and bad’in their mind. In this way a whole person, is reduced to being a part-object.   As the infant developed, and were able to hold the mother in their minds as a whole person, the splitting reduced.

Klein reasoned that this same process of splitting happens to us as adults, particularly if we are immature, or under duress.   We can all recall times when we like to think of ourselves, or our in-group the ‘good objects’, and others as the ‘bad objects’. Yet a mature reflection will reveal that we have both good and bad within us, as does the other whom we label as bad. Another part of this process is the unconscious act of projection. The repressed fears and anxieties we cannot tolerate are split off from our conscious minds and projected outwards onto others. For example when Pastors such as the charismatic evangelist Pastor Rev Ted Haggard preach anti-gay rhetoric, it comes as no surprise to psychoanalysts when they are caught having sexual acts with other men[1]. This is what is known as the ‘return of the repressed’. If they are comfortable with their own sexuality, why spend so much time preaching about homosexuality as a sin, when the core of message of Christianity is clearly loving our neighbour.

This psychic act of unconscious splitting is at the heart of the rightwing nationalist parties. They identify themselves and their ‘country’as pure, as a good object, and split off any bad feelings and fears and project them onto the immigrant, or the Jew, Muslim, Gypsy; whatever marginalised group is the most convenient for their cause.   Their inner fears, anxieties, their lack of self-confidence and self-esteem are repressed, they speak and act as if they are strong and powerful, and these inner fears are projected outwards onto the ‘bad object’. The fantasy promised by these rightwing zealots are that if they could stop immigration their countries would return to an idealised state of goodness, and their purity would be regained.   The task we face is to ‘traverse this fantasy’. Getting rid of the immigrant is a fantasy cure for a much wider problem, and getting rid of globalisation is like screaming:’stop the world I want to get off!’

The real issues Europe and other nations/regions face are to work through the challenges that arise from open-borders and globalization; yet also to celebrate and take advantage of the opportunities they present to us as well. Diversity, difference bring creativity and pleasure as well as challenges and threats.  There is no such thing as a pure race or nation in Europe, and there is no turning the clock back on globalisation.   Splitting the world into good and bad is infantile and it is cowardly. Turning real people, into part-objects is a very dangerous thing, and once this happens human history shows us how far we can go in our cruelty.

Unconscious repression and splitting may work for infants in the short term, but it is not a base for serious politic programs.   Those exploiting citizen’s fears, using splitting to divide and oppress others should be ashamed of themselves. Freud believed that by developing an understanding of our unconscious processes, we might be able to live a more civilized life, and address our underlying fears and human conflicts rather than simply acting them out. To achieve this we must first address the internal conflicts in ourselves and in our own minds, in order to address the wider conflicts in society.

The Leadership lessons

When leading an organization be aware of this process of splitting, for example, when one department or person become the good object (especially if its you!) and the ‘other’is the bad object. I have worked in many organizations where this happens and a person is removed because they are the bad object, only for another bad object to step into their shoes and replace them. When splitting occurs a bad object will always be found as they serve a purpose for the organization. The task for leaders is to take a mature reflective stance, and to stop the splitting when it occurs.

The Coaching lessons

Don’t collude with coaching a leader who is splitting- it’s very seductive for the coach to go along with it- “yes you are the good guys and they are the bad guys, lets get tough and deal with them”…..Be courageous and challenge splitting when it arises.


Eurovision Song Contest: Unifying around pleasure, irony and difference

Austria Last week millions of people across Europe watched one of the longest running television shows in the world (last year 170 million tuned in). The annual Eurovision song contest was established in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the stated purpose was to “unify postwar Western Europe through music, encourage cultural exchange and sharing, and construct a common European popular sphere[1]”.   Since then the show has ebbed and flowed in popularity, initially growing and then fading for a while until it was revitalised after the fall of the communist bloc, and the expansion of European Union to the East. It was re-invigorated as New Europe seemed to relish their opportunity to partake and ‘strut their stuff’ along Old Europe at this ‘cultural festival’.   Yet for some it became an object of ridicule, as the BBC presenter Terry Wogan testifies in his opening remarks of the Kiev 2005 final: Oh there’s a bit of singing as well. You remember when this was a song contest, do you? Back in the days of Katie Boyle? Forget it! The Eastern bloc has taken over. It’s now, ‘Never mind the music, we’ve got the neighbours to think of!’ Who cares? This karaoke of a thing… All spectacle and show and stuff strutting…—Terry Wogan, 2005 opening sequence in Kiev Wogan references the banality of the songs and also the ‘bloc voting’ that has became commonplace whereby friendly neighbouring countries score each other highly, with little reference to quality of performance, thereby distorting the results.   For some it remains a serious contest,and for others it has become a talentless farce. The Eurovision has many elements, there are displays of nationalist pride and identity, and also joy of belonging to Europe, whilst regional loyalties, tensions and differences are exposed through voting. There are naive, glitzy performances alongside displays of self-deprecating humour. However, many who look down on low culture, and once condemned the Eurovision as Eurotrash, now embrace is as an iconic event, seeing it as offering the perfect post-modern performance, an ironic send up of popular culture and a wonderfully camp extravaganza (highlighted by this years winner ‘Conchita’, a bearded drag queen representing Austria). The Eurovision survives as a unique carnivalesque spectacle and in a strangely subversive way- it maybe has achieved the original aims as the European ‘emotional economy’ becomes united for an evening through pleasure, irony and difference? In contrast people across Europe will soon vote in a context dominated by the financial economy, which since the financial crisis has created mayhem for many, and a right-wing nationalist backlash against austerity is predicted. Here we see the ‘emotional economy’ become hi-jacked and distorted by dangerous right-wing zealots . The Eurovision song contest is an example of how important it is for political, business and social leaders to address the emotional economy alongside the financial economy. For if the emotional economy becomes too fragmented, distrust and hatred can spread quickly- and we all know where this can lead. The Eurovision seems to achieve 3 things: 1)    It provides light relief and uncomplicated escapism from our daily troubles 2)    Working alongside other symbolic events such as the European soccer cup, it enables differences to emerge in a competitive environment, whilst at the same time creating a unified European emotional economy…. 3)    The Eurovision sends out a strong counter-message to nationalists and zealots- it says with a loud voice- the emotional economy of Europe is essentially tolerant, we enjoy and celebrate difference, and we have a strong identification with the marginalized. That’s why through the popular vote-  the bearded man in the dress won! Leadership lessons

  • Do not deny difference- it needs to find its expression- it’s the only way to find authentic unity!
  • Aligning culture is a nice phrase, but not reality- culture aligns itself if you value difference
  • Check out your biases and assumptions against the maverick voices- Like Conchita, they can become unifying characters and shouldn’t be marginalized, but tolerated and engaged with. Creativity and difference is a powerful winner over conformity
  • Focus and invest in the Emotional economy- not just the rational and financial-business side of the organisation or politics your involved in.
  • Focus on social trends as well as in-house trends- emotional economies operate across boundaries- and they can spread like viruses.

Coaching lessons

  • Check out with leaders whether they are in-touch with the emotional economy of their workplace, and how they engage with it.
  • Do they tolerate difference and find space to engage mavericks?
  • Reinforce to leaders how the emotional and financial economies are completely entwined.
  • Help leaders realise the power of irony- it can be subversive yet  it can also show us our blindspots,  and sometimes it generates tolerance and humility through allowing us to laugh at ourselves

[1] Raykoff and Tobin 2007:xviii. In Raykoff, I. 2007. “Camping on the Borders of Europe.” In Raykoff, I., and R. D. Tobin, eds. 2007. A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. Aldershot. (source