Far-right resurgence spurs Europe's fears

Sunday, May 5, 2002

LONDON -- Jean-Marie Le Pen has shocked Europe, raising fears that the far right is being resurrected as a political force for the first time since World War II.

Le Pen's upset success in getting through to the second round of France's presidential election today is seen by many as a key step in the reshaping of European politics and the revival of the far right and nationalism as a major force. While it seems certain Le Pen will lose to incumbent President Jacques Chirac, his first-round showing could have an impact far beyond the election.

The challenge posed by Le Pen goes beyond one election, said the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia in an April 30 editorial. "The probable victory of Chirac will not wipe it off the map as if by magic," the editorial said.

Far-right or anti-immigrant groups have done well enough to help form coalition governments in Austria and Italy. They have also made striking gains in Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. Some worry that the solid democracies that grew out of the ruins of World War II are under threat.

"Large parts of Europe are being infected by a xenophobic and totally unpleasant right-right wing," warned Holger K. Nielsen, the leader of Denmark's Socialist People's Party.

But Europe is not facing a revival of the fascism of the 1930s, although it is disturbing when xenophobic groups get anywhere near power, most analysts agree. None of the far-right parties advocate violence or dictatorship, and most claim they are not even particularly right-wing.

The far right barely exists in some countries, including Spain, Portugal and Greece. In local council elections Thursday in Britain, the anti-immigrant British National Party won just three out of some 6,000 seats.

The real impact of Le Pen and other far-right leaders could be in shifting the political agenda, forcing mainstream parties to change their policies. Worried about the far right's success, some parties are taking a tougher line on immigration and other issues to win back supporters who have flocked to the extremes.

Immigrant reaction

At its core, the far right has been boosted by a hostile reaction to the millions of immigrants that have flowed in to Europe from Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc.

The revelation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Islamic extremism has taken root in some of Europe's immigrant populations has worsened the hostility.

But the far right draws support on other issues too.

Above all there has been a backlash against mainstream parties, which many voters accuse of being indifferent, incompetent or corrupt. Many Europeans back the far right or the extreme left as a protest against the traditional system. While Le Pen got nearly 17 percent of the vote in the first round of the French election, 10 percent went to extreme-left candidates.

"What's worrisome is that the French vote was not against the left, it was against the political system, the traditional parties," said Stefano Silvestri, head of the Rome-based Institute for International Affairs.

The far right has been boosted by unease about the European Union's drive to build what many see as a superstate, where the rights of ordinary people are swallowed up. Le Pen accuses the EU of undermining French independence.

The 15-nation union already dictates a uniform code for everything from labor standards to the size of vegetables. On Jan. 1, 12 of its member states replaced their national currencies with the all-embracing euro, and it has big ambitions to harmonize taxes, forge a common foreign policy and develop its own military force.

There is concern that the far-right could slow these efforts, or even derail them. France, one of the prime movers for closer integration, could be sidelined as it struggles with the implications of Le Pen's success.

"The origins of the success of right-wing parties in Europe is the fact that the project of united Europe is becoming very serious. There is opposition from both left and right to this project everywhere in Europe," said Italian political analyst Sergio Romano.

Despite the claims of opponents, the far-right parties are far from united and have differing agendas. Some are against high taxation and generous state welfare systems, while others want to reduce government control in general.

There is little or no unity among the various far-right groups. Some were quick to distance themselves from Le Pen. "We completely condemn forms of intolerance," said Italy's neo-fascist National Alliance.

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