[Our ongoing series of dispatches from overseas correspondents continues with this first part of a two-part dispatch on the activities of the far right in Greece. See part 2 here.—Editors]
Part 1 – French and Belgian politicians foment jihadist conspiracy
Since the end of February 2020, thousands of refugees and migrants have been trying to cross the Greek border by way of Turkey, specifically in the border region along the Evros River, but also by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos just off the Turkish coast. Many of them are currently trapped in the Greek-Turkish mainland border region, able neither to enter Europe nor to return to Turkey.
This is the second largest immigration wave since 2015-2016, when more than one million refugees and migrants from Syria, the Middle East and Africa passed through Greece on their way to Europe. The number of arrivals declined after Macedonia and Bulgaria closed their borders to Greece in March 2016, and the European Union and Turkey implemented a deal designed to curb the flow of migrants to the continent. The Turkish government was to receive six billion euros in return for keeping refugees from entering the European Union.
In February Turkish president Erdogan opened the Turkish borders for refugees to enter Europe, reiterating that Turkey has received only a fraction of the promised financial aid, an allegation that European leaders deny. He has also declined a further payment of one billion euros offered by European leaders for keeping the refugees outside Europe. Erdogan seems not to be interested in money, but rather is utilizing the humanitarian crisis to pressure the EU to support his military drive against the Russia-backed Syrian forces that are currently fighting against Islamist strongholds in Northern Syria.
But it is not only Turkey’s president who is trying to exploit the misery of thousands of refugees, for whom the Geneva Convention has long ceased to apply. The current situation is also being exploited by the European far right. Since early March far-right and neo-Nazi sympathizers from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, as well as politicians of ultra-right parties from Germany, France, Belgium and Sweden, have shown up in the most affected border regions. This is an effort to show that they are ‘defending’ Europe’s borders, while painting a picture of ‘an uncontrolled stream’ of migrants and refugees, feeding into the scaremongering narratives of white supremacists.
Most recently, on March 10, a delegation of far-right politicians from France and Belgium appeared at the mainland border along the Evros river and was briefed by local authorities and the Greek Army on the current situation in the region.
Among the delegation were Jordan Bardella, the ‘rising star’ of the French far-right party “National Rally”(Rassemblement National, RN,formerly known as Front National, FN), and another politician of the far right, Jérôme Rivière. Since last year, the 24-year-old Bardella has been a Member of the European Parliament, as well as
National Rally’s vice president, thus, second to party leader Marine Le Pen (MLP). After MLP’s right-hand man Florian Philippot resigned from Front National (FN) in 2017, MLP propelled young faces to the head of the party, among them Bardella, who was elected FN’s official spokesperson.
As the son of an immigrant, Bardella is rallying against other immigrants: a perfect narrative for the far-right party, according to Spiegel reporter Britta Sandberg, since it pitches the “good” immigrant defending France against the “bad” immigrants. Bardella strongly promotes anti-migratory and anti-refugee policies, and is also known for his anti-Muslim statements. Bardella, who seems well-versed in political propaganda, has stated that “the EU grants many rights and weapons to terrorists and immigrants,” thus equaling immigrants with terrorists. Bardella is fully in line with MLP, who is currently focusing on the dangers of immigration in her political campaign. Bardella’s tour to the Greek-Turkish border was aimed to bolster MLP’s propaganda of a “flood of migrants orchestrated by a foreign state, Erdogan’s Islamist Turkey.”
Bardella was accompanied by National Rally politician Jérôme Rivière who, like Bardella, is a Member of the European Parliament. Rivière’s career in politics started in the mid-1990s, first in the center-right UMP party, but he gradually shifted further to the right. In 2016, Rivière became a member of the FN, and currently is one of the strategic advisors of Marine Le Pen for defense policy. In May 2019, he was elected to the European Parliament and, since then, has been the president of the French delegation to the far-right and nationalist parliamentary group “Identity and Democracy.”
Among the Evros delegation was also the Belgian far-right politician Dries Van Langenhove. Van Langenhove is currently a member of the Belgian House of Representatives for the far-right and nationalist “Flemish Interest” (Vlaams Belang) party. He is also the founder and president of Schild & Vrienden, a Belgian Identitarian youth group. Van Langenhove, an active blogger, has been accused of hate speech, anti-Semitism and Holocaust negationism. He was even arrested on these charges, but released on probation. A report by Pano provided a glimpse behind the scenes of Schild & Vrienden. In private chat groups, racist, anti-Semitic and sexist jokes and comments were exchanged. They contained posts glorifying Nazism, ridiculing the Holocaust, and mocking the death of a foreign toddler.
From among the participants in the Evros delegation, Van Langenhove received the warmest welcome from local authorities, the police and also civilians. This may be ascribed to Van Langenhove’s populist speech in the Belgian House of Representatives that made headlines, when he raised a Greek flag while arguing for stronger support to close Europe’s borders for refugees. Van Langenhove was accompanied by his compatriot Tom Vandendriessche, also an MEP of the far-right Vlaams Belang party.
The delegation was received by the mayor of the Greek town of Feres, Dimitris Kolgionis, and the mayor of Orestiada, Vasilios Mayridis. They also met with the mayor of Soyfli, Panagiotis Kalakikos. Lastly, they had a meeting with General Angelos Choudeloudis, then commander of the 12th infantry division stationed at the Evros River. During the briefing, the General spoke with the far-right delegation about the current situation on the Greek-Turkish border. He thanked them for their presence, telling them that it is a good opportunity to “see how we suffer.” Choudeloudis, apparently himself an extreme right-winger, stated that the current situation is not a refugee crisis, but that those crossing the border are jihadists, not immigrants or refugees. Bardella reiterated this conspiracist statement on social media, saying that “among these migrants, many belong to Jihadist networks.”
General Choudeloudis certainly transgressed his professional duty with this dangerous political statement, since Greek law strictly forbids military personnel to express political opinions, particularly under such critical circumstances. For unknown reasons, the Greek Ministry of Defense, on March 23, replaced Choudeloudis with General Christos Mpoyfis as commanding general.
Also Van Langenhove did not shy away from unfounded claims meant to boost racist resentments, when he questioned the numbers and origins of the refugees in Greece: “Erdogan speaks of thousands of people who have crossed the frontiers lately. In reality, these numbers are fake and we know that they are not Syrian refugees but mainly people from other countries.” Bardella underlined van Langenhove’s notion, saying “it is our duty as parliamentarians to inform everyone that this is not a refugee crisis but an organized plan.” While Bardella opposes the deal between the EU and Turkey, he proclaimed solidarity with Greece, and promised moral as well as financial support to protect Europe’s eastern borders.
The recent appearance of far-right politicians in the border region of Turkey and Greece is a blatant example of exploiting the current humanitarian crisis for racist political purposes. Although it is not yet clear whether any of the delegation members will be able fall back on existing contacts in Greece, the delegation’s meeting with General Choudeloudis certainly opened the door for a new conspiracy theory: namely, that refugees are not refugees, but jihadists that Erdogan sends to undermine Europe—just what the far right was waiting for.
— End Part 1 —
 Bardella joined Front National at 16, and subsequently was appointed head of the “Patriotic Suburb’’ (Banlieues Patriotes) initiative by Florian Philippot. In this context Bardella had his first TV appearance, and was “discovered” by Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen. His meteoric rise led to his election as a member of the executive bureau in 2018 and as leader of FN’s youth wing Génération Nation, and finally as vice president of the party in 2019.
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About the Author
Andrew Lee is an independent researcher and historian who studies the far-right parties in Greece and the wider region of the Balkans.