Politics is on the decline in Western-style democracies. A political vacuum is being created, and it is filled by far-Right groups such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's.
JEAN-MARIE LE PEN, the leader of the extreme-Right Front National (F.N.), finished a close second behind the outgoing President Jacques Chirac in the French presidential election, eliminating Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from the second round of voting on May 5 and from politics. However, the result has been misread both by the press and by politicians in Europe. It has been portrayed as being new and national in nature, with shock and indignation directed at France and the French. In reality it is both older and more widespread as a phenomenon, and is more representative of the increasing failure of the political system than the success of the F.N. The writing has been on the wall for a decade and more.
After all, in 1995 Le Pen and the other extreme-Right candidate Philippe de Villiers (Mouvement pour la France) polled 19.74 per cent of the vote, that is, 6.01 million votes. This time, it was 19.20 per cent of the vote (5.47 million votes) for Le Pen and his erstwhile Deputy Bruno Megret, running for the Mouvement National Republicain. Since 1995, Le Pen's own vote share has crept up by 240,000. Since the F.N. was formed in 1972, when it was little more than a coalition of neo-fascist groups, Le Pen has managed to force his party to move from the political margins into the mainstream - aided and abetted by both the Left and the Right, which at different times have cynically used him for their own short-term political ends. Le Pen's own contribution has been to make his brand of racism and xenophobia, his party's ultranationalism and neo-Nazi eugenics, more palatable by diluting the original party's neo-fascist activists with respectable figures such as Charles de Gaulle, the former President's grandson who now represents the F.N. in the European Parliament.
But despite this, Le Pen and his party are certainly on the further shores of European politics. Le Pen stated that the Holocaust was a 'point of detail of history'. Yet for him downplaying Jewish genocide was not enough. He also said that he was not so sure whether some of it happened at all, and that 'the Americans built the gas chambers in Buchenwald after the War'. Members of his party and its supporters blew themselves up some years ago when they were trying to plant a bomb outside the headquarters of the anti-racist group SOS Racisme in Toulon. F.N. members have also been convicted of racist attacks and racist murders, and Le Pen himself was convicted of an assault in 1998 on a French Socialist candidate.
But the F.N. is not alone. The extreme-Right is on the move across Europe. Two far-Right parties are in power in the continent. In Austria Joerg Haider's Freicheitliche Partei Oesterreiche (FPV) is part of a coalition government with the Conservative Austrian Die Oesterreiche Volkspartei. Haider, infamous for his comment that 'Hitler's employment policies were better than [those of] the previous government', used to meet secretly Le Pen and Franz Schvnhuber, the then leader of Germany's far-Right Republikaner Party.
In Italy, Gianfranco Fini's Alleanza Nazionale (A.N.) is a central part of Silvio Berlusconi's government, along with the increasingly xenophobic Lega Nord of Umberto Bossi. The A.N. is a subtle rebranding of the former, avowedly neo-fascist Moviemento Sociale Italiano's (MSI), and is repositioning itself, moving from fascist right to fascist light, in response to Le Pen's earlier success. Fini himself was the anointed successor of Giorgio Almirante, the MSI's founder in the late 1940s and the former Head of the Office of the Minister of Propaganda in Italy's Salo Republic. This was when Italian fascism was at its worst, sending Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. Shortly before 1994 Fini, who was interviewed in Le Pen's Europe des Patries, said that he was looking forward to close cooperation with the F.N.
In Denmark and Norway, the two Right-wing minority governments are both propped up by similar parties, Pia Kjaersgaard's Danskvolksparti (DPP) and Carl Hagen's Fremskriltsparti (FrP) with 12 per cent and 15 per cent voter support respectively. In Belgium, Filip Dewinter's Vlaam's Blok (V.B.) has two Members in the European Parliament, and is the biggest party in Antwerp, Belgium's second most important city. In Holland, Pim Fortuyn's Leefbaar Nederland won 17 seats on Rotterdam's City Council in March and is expected to win up to 18 seats in the May 15 national elections.
The underlying reality is that old post-War political consensus is collapsing. Politics itself is in decline across Western-style democracies. Voter turnout is collapsing from Britain to Japan, from the United States to France. A political vacuum is being created. Nature, abhorring a vacuum, is allowing something, anything, to fill it. Those who still participate in what is fast becoming a minority sport increasingly vote for the new, the nasty and the novel. There is a growth of regionalist parties, some cut with xenophobia, and the repackaged far-Right like F.N. and some with green tinges - environmentalists and just plain mavericks. From Jesse Ventura, the Mayor of Milwaukee, via Yasuo Tanaka, the Governor of Nagano, to London's 'independent' Mayor Ken Livingstone.
Why is this happening? The reason is partly the end of the Cold War, which did much to discipline the electorate into making simple choices for so long - Left or Right choices; Washington or Moscow. More important, national politics is becoming increasingly impotent in the face of the evolution of industrial society to continental and global dimensions. The reality is that most parties in power now have so little room to manoeuvre because of the constraints of the market, financial institutions and their own thinking, that like the men and the pigs at the conclusion of George Orwell's Animal Farm, it is barely possible to tell one from another. Is it surprising that the electorate is alienated?
The first task for politicians is to start telling it like it is rather than how we would like it to be. To grab the levers of power where they are, not where they used to be. To make politics relevant by being effective rather than merely hopeful. Otherwise the Le Pen 'shock' will be the harbinger of a long political winter for progressive politics.
Glyn Ford is a member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom.