French elections underscore Europe's shift to the right

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

VIENNA, Austria -- Austria for the Austrians. France for the French. Holland and Denmark without Muslims or mosques.

The surprise resurgence of extreme nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in France's first round of presidential elections is just the latest example of the far right gaining ground in Europe.

From Austria, home to far-right politician Joerg Haider and the anti-immigration Freedom Party, to the Netherlands -- where rightist Pim Fortuyn has a foothold among the famously tolerant Dutch -- extremist politicians are winning votes by tapping working-class fears that foreigners are stealing jobs and a way of life.

"I feel like I'm being taken hostage," said Wolfgang Seidler, 53, a Vienna businessman and political moderate who's bewildered at the shift. "We're in a new millennium, and yet we're going back to the 19th century."

Some say Europeans are receptive to harsh anti-foreigner rhetoric because rapid globalization has made them feel like they've lost control of their lives. Others contend the traditionally centrist political establishment has brought the far right into play by losing touch with citizens' daily struggles.

That, they say, has created fertile ground for ultraconservatives like Le Pen and his potent "France for the French" nationalism or Mogens Glistrup, founder of Denmark's extremist Progress Party, who wants to expel all Muslims.

"There's a deep, widespread and genuine concern over issues of personal and national identity," said Simon Serfaty of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are multiple forces that challenge these nations and their citizens: too many immigrants, the European Union, the intrusion of American culture. People see it as a kind of invisible invasion. They have no way out, and the hard right is rooted in that."

Around for decades

It's not a new trend. Le Pen's National Front has been a political fixture in France for three decades, and Haider's Freedom Party was around long before it became part of Austria's coalition government in 2000.

Although Haider no longer leads the party, and its support has dwindled from 27 percent to about 16 percent, he remains governor of the province of Carinthia and continues to push for a pan-European network of right-wing politicians.

"It's not about an organization. It's about people who want to change course, and there are a lot of people involved in this mission," Haider told the Austrian daily Der Standard.

Europe's far right, however, shows no signs of weakening.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi presides over a conservative coalition that includes the fiercely rightist Northern League, which wants jobless immigrants deported. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is working to outlaw the National Democratic Party, which is accused of stirring up skinhead violence and neo-Nazi ideology.

Even so, Europeans "shouldn't panic too quickly," Serfaty said.

"We're not about to relive the 1930s in Europe," he said. "Europe has never been more democratic, never more prosperous, never more secure than it is today."

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