Europes Right Turn

BY Doug Ireland

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A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of the extreme right. George W. Bush’s long war has dramatically accelerated the brown-shirted emotions of xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant hysteria all across the Continent. Undermined by corruption and programatically bankrupt, European social democracy is on the run, and, where still in power, its political leadership is taking the blame for the deepening economic crisis. The “Rose Europe” of the ’90s—in which social-democratic governments of the left, or left-center coalitions, held power nearly everywhere in Western Europe—is coming to an end.

The “Third Way” dear to Germany’s Gerhard Schröder (and Britain’s Tony Blair) represents the “Clintonization” of traditional social democratic politics, and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s compromises are pretty weak tea, indeed. But those vying to replace the temporizers of the watered-down European left are much, much worse. The Franco-German entente has traditionally dominated Euro-community politics and economics, motoring the drive toward an increasingly federalized Europe. But this year’s elections on either side of the Rhine threaten to shift the balance of power sharply to the right.

France’s lurch rightward is driven by the fact that it has a larger North African population than any other European country. It imported hundreds of thousands of manual laborers from its former colonies in the postwar growth years of the ’50s and ’60s. The second- and third-generation youths from these traditionally large immigrant families are trapped in an identity crisis: French-speaking and rarely knowing the language and culture of their parents’ origins, they have never been accepted into French society. Penned in the desolate, stifling, low-income high-rises of the isolated suburban cités that ring urban France (and victims of unemployment rates as high as 50 percent) many idle ghetto youths find their only real identity in gangs of petty criminals—and are seen as the cause of rising crime.

All this helps explain why the French left lost control of 40 cities in last year’s municipal elections, in a harbinger of things to come. The Socialist Party’s Jospin is slightly behind or even with conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac in the polls for April’s presidential elections. But Jospin’s strongest challenge may be from his former minister of the interior, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a hard-liner on immigrants. Chevènement, a fervent nationalist and Eurosceptic, had quit as minister of defense for a previous Socialist government in 1991 to protest France’s support of the Gulf War. He then founded his own party, the Citizen’s Movement (or MDC, its French acronym), which until his latest resignation had been a part of Jospin’s governing coalition. Posing as a guarantor of order, the man the French press ironically has nicknamed “le Chè,” in moving sharply to his right, has stitched together a crazy-quilt coalition of supporters that includes former Communist ministers, leaders of the Radicals of the Left (a small, middle-class party which is neither) and Viscount Phillipe DeVilliers, an ultraright Catholic politician.

Chevènement’s anti-Americanism and pandering to security hysteria is attracting more of Chirac’s voters than Jospin’s in the polls, making him le troisième homme (the third man) in the first round of the two-stage presidential election process. He’s doing so well that many perspicacious French political analysts believe that the runoff could well be between Jospin and le Chè rather than a Jospin-Chirac duel.

Chirac himself has been undermined by a continuing scandal over the organized bribery that financed all of France’s important political parties (with the exception of the Greens). But the Socialists, too, have been hit by the corruption scandals, and ministers from both left and right parties have been imprisoned on a variety of corruption charges. Although Jospin’s personal financial integrity has never been questioned, his credibility has been seriously undermined by revelations that he first joined the Socialist Party as a mole for a super-secretive Trotskyite sect known as the Lambertistes (after their paranoid, reclusive leader Pierre Lambert). For years Jospin denied rumors of his Trotskyite past—claiming he had been confused with his brother. But an accumulation of public testimonies from his ex-Trotskyite colleagues, showing that Jospin’s relationship with the ultrasectarian group continued well into his years as first secretary of the Socialist Party under President Francois Mitterand, finally forced Jospin to admit the truth. This has given ammunition to the right, and snide references to “Comrade Michel” (Jospin’s underground code name) dot the discourse of his critics.

Meanwhile, the race-baiting neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen—a notorious anti-Semite whose National Front had been written off when corruption and mismanagement lost it the three important mayoralties it controlled in last year’s municipal elections—is once again getting as much as 13 percent in some presidential opinion polls. (Le Pen, whose ex-wife has said that at home he always called Hitler “Uncle Adolf,” is famous for having declared the Nazi concentration camp ovens “a detail of history.”) At the same time, two other members of Jospin’s “plural left” alliance, the Communists (once France’s largest postwar political party) and the Greens, have both sunk to around 5 percent in opinion surveys. If Jospin is defeated for the presidency—in a runoff in which Le Pen and Chevènement hold the balance of power—the left coalition will have serious trouble hanging on to its majority in the legislative elections in June.

Gerhard Schröder is likewise in deep trouble in the forthcoming September elections. Just weeks after Bush declared war on “evil” before Congress, his German Socialist Party (SPD)—with its historical roots as the mother party of European socialism—was swept from power in Hamburg, where it had ruled for 50 years, as a newly created, anti-immigrant Law and Order Party won a stunning quarter of the vote (much of it poached from the SPD’s traditional working-class electorate).

The German economy is almost in free fall. Unemployment, the issue that more than any other brought Schröder to power, is nearing 10 percent and growing rapidly. German cities are slashing services and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of a business-friendly change in the tax law (pushed through by Schröder) that gutted municipal revenues. And a major scandal has erupted over the falsification and inflation of job-placement figures under Schröder’s labor minister.

Another scandal making headlines concerns Schröder’s attempts to ban the neo-Nazi German National Party (NPD). Attempting to outlaw any political party in a country with Germany’s totalitarian past touches a raw nerve, and making the NPD illegal would turn the neo-Nazis—who have been making serious inroads in the economically depressed former East Germany—into martyrs. What’s more, at least five NPD leaders whose anti-immigrant excesses were cited as reasons for the ban have been revealed as German intelligence agents.

All this has created extraordinarily fertile ground for the candidate of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Edmund Stoiber, a protégé of the late Franz Josef Strauss, the authoritarian strongman of Bavarian politics and notorious coddler of ex-Nazis. A flaming nationalist and Eurosceptic, Stoiber’s law-and-order, tough-on-immigrants discourse is highly popular, particularly in East Germany, where unemployment has hit 17 percent. Bavaria under Stoiber has become the high-tech capital of Europe, thanks to the windfall subsidies Stoiber handed out to business, with an unemployment rate of little more than 5 percent, roughly half that of the country as a whole.

Schröder’s chances of hanging on as chancellor against the man posing as the author of the “Bavarian miracle” are further undercut by the fact that this fall, Germany’s parliament will find its number of seats decreased by almost 10 percent (when a law passed by the previous conservative government in 1996 goes into effect). According to the influential daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “If this year’s election results were to come out the same as in 1998, the SPD and the Greens’ lead of 21 seats would probably shrink to eight as a result of the reforms.”

But the traditionally pacifist Greens’ support has plummeted in the polls since September 11, despite the pro-war sentiments of their leader Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister. Schröder’s only hope of survival likely rests in a future coalition with the PDS, ex-Communists led by Gregor Gyisi who are surprisingly strong, and not only in the East. The SPD already has coalition governments with the PDS in several Länder (including Berlin—where they supported the election of Mayor Klaus Wovereit, the openly gay SPD leader). While Schröder has denied he’ll ever form an alliance with the PDS, a February poll shows that only 38 percent of Germans believe him.


Then there is Italy, where Premier Silvio Berlusconi—elected by his virulently anti-immigrant and racist campaign—governs with the support of the post-fascist National Alliance Party and the xenophobic Northern League of Umberto Bossi. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Onward Italy!) is unlike any other party in Western Europe. Italy’s richest man built it as a business, rather like Amway, handing out prizes in cash and gifts to those who enrolled the most members and corralled the most votes, a practice he continues. As a magnate, he owns 45 percent of Italy’s television, and as head of government he now commands 45 percent more (via the three state-run TV networks).

Italy’s vice-premier, Gianfranco Fini, the head of the National Alliance, joined its predecessor, the MSI (or Italian Social Movement, founded by ex-Fascists in 1946), at the age of 17 because, he claims, leftist demonstrators had blocked him from going to the movies to see John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Yet as recently as 1994, he told La Stampa that Mussolini was “the greatest statesman in history.” Now Berlusconi has thumbed his nose at the European Union by appointing Fini as Italian representative to the European constitutional convention. Furthermore, Berlusconi’s minister of immigration was part of Mussolini’s last-ditch Salo Republic, while he chose a former Fascist youth leader to oversee state television. And his culture minister—former TV host of a home-shopping program—has recently denounced contemporary art as “excremental.”

Yet the opposition—the center-left Olive Tree coalition—is in complete disarray, preoccupied with internal power struggles. Its leader, Francesco Rotelli, the former mayor of Rome, is, as the Guardian recently put it, “wan and passionless.” Piero Fassino, the gangling leader of the PDS (the Democratic Left Party, ex-Communists) hardly seems to offer a more charismatic alternative. The cri de coeur of Nobel laureate Dario Fo on the following pages makes clear the grave threat Berlusconi poses to democracy as, one by one, he puts the institutions of state (like the judiciary) under his thumb.

Elsewhere, fear and hatred of brown- and black-skinned immigrants has even infected historically tolerant and social-democratic Scandinavia: Last October, the Norwegian Labor Party suffered its worst general election result in 90 years, evicted by a conservative coalition led by Kjell Magne Bondevik, a Lutheran priest. The next month, Denmark’s social democrats were handed their worst showing in 50 years, losing power to the charismatic young conservative Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who ran on an anti-immigrant, law-and-order platform. Meanwhile, the extreme-right Danish People’s Party racked up enough votes to make it the third-largest party in the country (though nowhere in Scandinavia has the immigrant population surpassed 5 percent).

In Spain, the popularity of conservative Premier Jose Maria Aznar has never been higher in the six years since he defeated the corruption-tainted Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez. And in Belgium, the neo-fascist Flemish nationalists of the Vlams Blok won 10 percent of the vote two years ago in elections that saw it and other far-right parties gain at the expense of the corruption-plagued Socialist coalition government there. The xenophobic security hysteria magnified by the war has also considerably helped the fortunes of Nazi-loving Austrian demagogue Jörg Haider and his neo-fascist party, the FPO, which in late January was polling 25 percent, equal to that of its coalition partner in government.

If Edmund Stoiber becomes the new German chancellor next fall, there is a grave danger that a new Rome-Berlin-Vienna axis of conservative, nationalist, immigrant-baiters would halt the construction of a federal Europe and roll back the European Union’s sterling commitment to human rights. With the dark cloud of racism hanging over the Continent, the future of European social democracy looks increasingly bleak.


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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. He’s a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.

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