Hungary’s politicians react to the Paris attacks

Teaser Image Caption
Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in Bruxelles on 9 January 2015

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris evoked strong reactions all around the world. The Hungarian government has reacted with proposals to restrict freedom of speech and by highlighting the problems of immigration.

Hungary’s prime minister took part in the Freedom March in Paris, even though his invitation and attendance—along with those of other politicians whose anti-democratic rhetoric and political actions have met with strong disapproval recently—had been criticised by a prominent segment of the French media, including Metro and Le Monde. Viktor Orbán did not undercut such criticism when he stated in an interview he gave in Paris for Hungarian state media that “we have to address the issue of immigration and related cultural questions in a much more open and honest manner,” adding that he is “hoping that a sober, calm analysis of recent events will point European leaders as well as Brussels in the direction of a strict and more restrictive policy towards immigration issues in Europe.”

“Economic immigration is a bad phenomenon in Europe, and we cannot view it as something that has yielded benefits, since the only thing it brings upon European people is danger,” Orbán said, adding “we have to stop immigration; this is the opinion of Hungary.” He emphasized that immigrants who leave their homes for truly political reasons “should be granted what they ask for—asylum,” but that those who move for economic reasons will not be accepted in Hungary.

“We nevertheless have to make it very clear that we are not going to let it happen, at least not while I am prime minister and while this government is in office; we are not going to let Hungary become a destination for immigrants,” he stated, adding that “we do not want to see a significant minority in our midst with cultural backgrounds and habits different from our own. We want to keep Hungary for the Hungarians.”

This announcement was not at all spontaneous; rather, it was part of a carefully planned campaign, as is evidenced by numerous public statements along the same lines by a range of government and party officials. Zoltán Balog, Hungary’s Minister of Human Capacities, confirmed Orbán’s above quoted words in a television programme recorded days in advance. Antal Rogán, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group, said that “economic immigrants bring traditions different from our own into the country, which makes immigration something that is not in the country’s interest,” while a few days later Fidesz spokesperson Bence Tuzson said Hungary has “no necessity for economic immigrants.”

Appealing to Jobbik voters

However, this interview also did not differ from Orbán’s favourite rhetorical turns: “This is a Christian country, and we do have mercy in our hearts. Apparently, those who are persecuted have to be helped, but economic immigrants must be rejected, and it has to be made clear to them that this is not a place where they can settle.” Hungary’s parliamentary opposition was unable to counterbalance the state media coverage. Rather, they seemed to be trying to avoid the topic of immigration, and only reacted to a few media reports, focusing mostly on terrorism and emigration if they touched on the topic at all.

Some members of the socialist party MSZP stood by the importance of immigration and diversity in Europe, although its leaders mostly concentrated on the fight against terrorism and the theme of stopping emigration from Hungary, avoiding the topic of immigration whatsoever. The party called a meeting of the national security committee following the Paris attacks, and after the closed session committee chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) stated that “Hungary is not on the list of highlighted targets of terrorism; there is no immediate danger of terrorist attacks, but nor does this mean 100 percent safety.” He added that the border security issues and the status of immigrants were reviewed during the meeting, but that the MSZP does not believe that economic immigration and freedom of speech fall into this category.”

Appearing on the most popular opposition television programme, Egyenes Beszéd, Democratic Coalition (DK) leader Ferenc Gyurcsány said that the topic of immigration had come into the spotlight recently due to Orbán’s “soulless political speculation”. Orbán’s harder line is intended to appeal to Jobbik voters, Gyurcsány asserted.

András Schiffer, co-president of Politics Can Be Different party (LMP), thinks that measures strengthening law enforcement and tightening immigration policies are only a short-term solution, as the problems of terrorism will continuously be reproduced by a world order built on free trade. Thus, Hungary and other EU states have a common interest in developing a long-term strategy for eventually eliminating the global “inequalities”.

Jobbik proposes a zero-tolerance approach

In recent weeks, LMP has expressed an ambivalent position on issues of immigration: party officials visited the mosque of the Hungarian Islamic Community, where they met with community leaders, while party representatives also participated in a protest organized by immigrants with a few hundred attendees. However, it was LMP that proposed a bill in the parliament which would revoke Hungarian citizenship from any immigrant who has acquired it within the preceding 20 years if they commit a crime related to terrorism.

Tímea Szabó, co-president of Dialogue for Hungary (PM), criticized government asylum policy:

“Due to the complete lack of overarching integration policies, immigrants have never considered Hungary an attractive destination. Even those who have been granted asylum here have not been able to properly integrate for decades because of the government’s hostile attitude, so the number of immigrants in the country is insignificant.”

Nóra Hajdu, board member of the Együtt (Together) party has stated in an article on the party website website that “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has again positioned himself against European values [...], by which he is just increasing Hungary’s isolation internationally.”

The otherwise Islamophobic far-right Jobbik party does not view the issues of terrorism and immigration in religious terms. However, they regard the relationship between immigration and terrorism a causal one. According to their statement, “Europe has tried to solve its population issues using external help, but this attempt has failed. The continent has become the centre of cultural conflicts that stem from the failure of the system, and Europe cannot emerge from this situation in a positive way.” The radical party proposes a zero-tolerance approach in the country’s asylum policy, meaning the strictest restrictions and measures possible.

"All we can do is protect ourselves"

The government has embarked on a new policy approach after the attacks in Paris. After a meeting of the five parliamentary parties, leaders of government parties Fidesz and the Christian democratic KDNP proposed to create a bill that would protect “community symbols”. “It is not enough to respect personal opinions,” they stated, “communities require respect as well, since [...] in Europe, being fundamentally Christian, there are a significant number of communities that have other viewpoints on questions such as religious symbols.”

Péter Harrach, the leader of KDNP, took a harder line, contending that neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can involve blasphemy. Harrach explained that this was one of the lessons of the tragic events in Paris, in addition to the need to review immigration policy. Opposition parties have uniformly rejected the idea of restricting freedom of speech (except, of course, for the far-right Jobbik).

The debate over whether the images published in Charlie Hebdo constitute blasphemy or not, which may have led to the drafting of the above-mentioned bill, began even earlier. On the day of the Paris attacks, the right-wing daily Heti Válasz published an article by Szilárd Szőnyi, who is known for his homophobic writings, in which he contemplates how the attacks could have been avoided:

“It appears that we are not able to change the terrorists of the Islamic State; all we can do is protect ourselves. One way of doing this is by not publishing such drawings, which disgust not only those animals who have lost all human characteristics, but any decent citizen as well.”

This article has outraged leftist, liberal, and independent media alike, while it has received support from right-wing media and apparently also from the government.

70 percent support tougher restrictions

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, almost all daily and weekly newspapers and online portals (including the leftist 168 Óra, the liberal Magyar Narancs and economic weekly Figyelő) commemorated the tragedy by printing a “Je suis Charlie” sign on their covers, while Heti Válasz put a “We are Charlies in our mourning” sign on theirs. This unity of right and left did not last long, however. After the strong reactions to the Paris attacks from the government and the right wing, three public opinion polls were published.

One of these was commissioned by the weekly economic paper HVG, and was based on data collected from Facebook. It showed that 62 percent of respondents regarded the drawings published in Charlie Hebdo as offensive to Muslims, but that 52 percent of respondents nonetheless believe these images should be protected under freedom of speech. Interestingly, 42 percent said such images are unacceptable even under freedom of speech, and 45 percent would impose some kinds of restrictions on such offensive content.

Another poll, conducted by the government-associated Századvég Foundation, showed that 70 percent of citizens would support tougher restrictions on immigration, and there was no significant difference between the views of different parties’ supporters on this question. 56 percent of left-wing voters, 65 percent of centrists, and 59 percent of undecided voters were in favour of stricter regulations, while 85 percent  of right-wing voters were in favour. It is important to note here that according to data from last November’s Eurobarometer statistics, immigration issues were only identified as significant by 3 percent of citizens.