Int. Herald Tribune
Fear of 'the Other' fuels rise of European rightists

By Charles Trueheart

Paris, Saturday, February 12, 2000

PARIS - The anguished reaction of European leaders as Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joins the Austrian government is not the shock of something unprecedented. It is the shock of something all too familiar in their own countries.

Popular extreme-right parties have become a fact of political life in Europe in the past decade.

Parties akin to Mr. Haider's - in France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Denmark, each with distinctive homegrown appeals - have been capturing hefty slices of the vote in recent national elections. The parties have done so by calling for checks or bans on immigration, crackdowns on crime and welfare cheats, and repudiation of pan-European institutions and ideals.

Their messages, by turns populist and xenophobic, coincide with rising numbers of immigrants and asylum-seekers, persistent joblessness and ever more remote political and economic forces playing an evermore direct role in the ordinary lives of Europeans.

And the rhetoric can be blunt.

"Denmark is not and has never been a country of immigrants - we don't want a multiethnic society," declared Pia Kjaersgaard, head of the Danish People's Party, which won 7.5 percent of parliamentary seats in Denmark's elections in 1998 and is pulling 18 percent support in more recent polls.

There is no mystery about why immigration has become a gut issue for many Europeans. For years and in some cases decades, "foreigners" from North Africa or Turkey or Eastern Europe have flooded across Western Europe's increasingly porous borders and established themselves and their families here. Now they are seen as a menace to livelihood and national culture.

"The phenomenon has bred insecurity - the fear of losing your job, the fear of crime, the fear of immigrants, the fear of 'the other,"' said Patrick McCarthy, who teaches European studies at the Bologna campus of Johns Hopkins University.

Just this week, those anxieties exploded in punitive riots against North African immigrants in southern Spain, where the far right was supposed to have been buried with Franco a quarter century ago.

To alienated voters, the far right offers the bulwark of history and blood.

"They say, 'We will help you not because you are a French citizen or a French taxpayer but because your family has lived in France for centuries," Mr. McCarthy said.

Europe's far right has many faces. The crudest has been National Front, which since the mid-1980s has played on the French fears of "the other" to draw a consistent 15 percent of the French vote in recent elections.

The National Front's longtime leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, embodies the demagogy and thinly veiled racism that Mr. Haider and other extreme-right European politicians have sought to purge from their rhetorical inventory. The National Front last year broke in two over just this issue: whether to broaden its appeal by cleaning up its message, as the breakaway faction believes.

Switzerland's version, the People's Party of Christoph Blocher, became the largest vote-getter in the country in last October's federal elections. Drawing on resentment of immigrant workers, many from Southeastern Europe, the party drew nearly 23 percent of the vote. But Mr. Blocher, an international businessman, has repudiated some supporters and even his own past pronouncements in an effort to present a more respectable image like Mr. Haider's.

In some cases, these hard-right European parties champion a separatist agenda. One is the Northern League, which in Italy seeks to uncouple the prosperous north of economic haves from the depressed south of have-nots. Another is the Flemish rightist Vlaams Blok in Belgium.

In these two movements, the "other" is not only immigrants but also historically entrenched white fellow-citizens who are poorer and less educated, southerners in Italy and French-speaking Walloons in Belgium. And while most other far-right parties are explicitly opposed to the gradual political and economic unification of Europe, in these two separation-prone regions, the case for self-sufficiency is necessarily built on close economic ties to the rest of Europe.

But for far-right party leaders, the European experiment is portrayed as a menace to national sovereignty and a vehicle to subjugate citizens to laws promulgated by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union bureaucracy.

Another common plank of far-right platforms in Europe strikes a chord with voters at all economic levels: disgust and disillusionment with established political parties of the right and left that have dominated national politics in Western Europe at least since World War II.

Not without evidence, Mr. Haider, Mr. Le Pen and Mr. Blocher paint the mainstream formations as intellectually bankrupt and corruption-ridden, unable to govern or reform, and fundamentally no different one from another.

The popular revolt that turns up in votes for far-right parties has bled mainstream conservative parties of parts of their natural constituencies and confounded governments struggling to adhere to mainstream social democratic ideals.

Whatever the success of the European Union's diplomatic quarantine of Austria, most analysts say that under current economic conditions, extreme-right parties have a natural ceiling of support that is not likely to bring them much more power than they already enjoy.

"But if the economy goes into a spin and people start worrying about their pensions and worrying about inflation, it's almost inevitable that the gravity will shift to the extreme right," said Samuel Pisar, an international lawyer and champion of Holocaust remembrance. "Maybe there won't be gas chambers, but it could get pretty dicey."

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