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Europe's Right turn

Print edition : May 25, 2002

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Across Europe, right-wing forces are making their presence felt in elected power structures propelled by a growing resentment against immigrants. An analysis in the context of the outcome of the Dutch elections.

"THERE is no point pussyfooting about it. Europe has moved to the Right. People have finally understood that the lax approach of the Left, soft on crime and delinquency, has led us to the brink of a catastrophe. Immigration is a problem. There is a clash of cultures. We must recognise that certain immigrant communities are unable to integrate, linked as they are to aggressive behaviour (encouraged by their religion) and high crime rates. We, the Western nations, are losing our identity, being swamped by those whose values do not match our humanist, Judaeo-Christian approach. We must halt this flood of immigration of economic refugees and asylum-seekers or risk losing our identity, our very soul. That does not make us racist and we are not racist. All we are calling for is a proper analysis of the present situation."

This is not an excerpt from an anti-immigrant tirade by France's extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen or a speech by the slain Dutch right-wing provocateur Pim Fortuyn. These words were uttered in a soft, reasoned and reasonable voice by Jan de Klerk, a 24-year-old student in Rotterdam.

It is the day after right-wing forces triumphed in the Netherlands' parliamentary poll, with the Christian Democrats winning 41 of 150 parliamentary seats and Pim Fortuyn's now headless movement sending 26 inexperienced first-time MPs to the lower House. Hundreds of bouquets of dead and wilting flowers still adorn Rotterdam's city hall, detritus from the tearful adieu Fortuyn's supporters bid him. In a meteoric rise last March, Pim Fortuyn and his rag-tag band of handpicked collaborators won a third of city council seats in Europe's largest port, Holland's second-largest city.

After his assassination on May 6 at the hands of an extremist white Dutch animal rights activist (Fortuyn was killed presumably because he advocated relaxing Holland's strict laws banning animal farming for fur) the Pim Fortuyn List, also known as the dead man's list, became the second biggest political force in this country, winning a sixth of the popular vote, on an anti-crime, anti-immigrant platform.

Openly gay and a natty dresser, the extrovert Fortuyn cut a controversial figure in Dutch politics, with his blunt anti-immigrant messages and blatant calls in favour of discrimination. The former Professor of Sociology burst onto the political scene last year, joining the right-wing Liveable Netherlands Party after many years spent criticising the government in a popular magazine column. However, he was expelled from the party after advocating amendments to the first Article of the Dutch Constitution that bans any form of discrimination.

Fortuyn formed his own party and went on to win a third of the seats in the local council elections in his native Rotterdam. Established political parties branded him an extremist and were reluctant to enter into a dialogue with him. Fortuyn's sympathisers now blame the ruling coalition for "demonising" the politician and creating a climate of hate that eventually led to his murder.

The public outpouring of grief - over 40,000 people attended his funeral in Rotterdam, while over a hundred thousand braved rain and wind to sign the condolence register - has been likened to the emotional wave that hit Britain after the passing of Princess Diana.

"We are not a demonstrative people; quite the contrary, we are rational, cool, deliberate, not given to impulsive behaviour. People demonstrated because Pim Fortuyn had brought them hope, speaking about real issues and subjects our strait-laced and overly politically correct society was too frightened to confront. What the Dutch want in public life is respect and consideration, the observation of certain norms and standards of behaviour. Communities like the Moroccans or the West Indians do not show that respect. The crime rate in these communities is disproportionately high. The Moroccans applauded when the World Trade Centre went down. That is not acceptable behaviour," says Jan, who switched from studying law to sociology after reading Pim Fortuyn's best-selling book setting out his ideas.

If Jan de Klerk could be dismissed as just another impressionable student seduced by a flamboyant, populist politician, the same cannot be said of Hans Gosliga, a senior correspondent with the Amsterdam-based daily Trouw. "I did not vote for Pim Fortuyn and I shall never vote for his party. He said many things that I look upon with horror. For instance, he wanted the ban on discrimination to be removed; he called Islam a backward religion and declared that Holland was full up - no more immigration. However, he put his finger on certain subjects that have been bothering the Dutch and which our society, because of its conservatism and humanist approach, has made taboo. Fortuyn articulated thoughts that were suppressed by many. It was like opening the floodgates," he says.

After eight years of unprecedented prosperity and economic growth, the Dutch are concerned that crime is on the rise - an assumption not borne out by the statistics - and that the government has not invested enough in health and education. "Discontent is the strangest legacy of these eight years of a socio-liberal coalition," said the daily De Volkskrant. "Wim Kok's Labour government has made us wealthy: unemployment is at a record low of 2.5 per cent, which even means a labour shortage, household incomes are up by 20 per cent and social charges have fallen, and yet the people are dissatisfied or worried," it said. For many, more foreigners means more unemployment and crime, even though violent crime is at the same level as 1986, according to the Central Office of Statistics.

"People see that society has changed, that there are more coloured people around," said Professor Han Entzinger from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. "It is true that there is a crime problem among some groups of young Moroccans and youths from the Dutch Antilles, but at the same time, these people are integrating well. Unemployment among second-generation immigrants is at practically the same level as among the native population and there is a developing middle class."

There are now 2.8 million people in the Netherlands or 17.5 per cent of the population, with at least one parent born outside the Netherlands. Only 4.2 per cent of the people do not have Dutch nationality.

If the die has been cast in the Netherlands, the issue is still open in France. On May 5, in another landmark election, the French voted the extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into the second round run-off of French presidential elections, knocking out the socialist candidate, the then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. A wave of shame and remorse hit France, one of the first countries to pillory Austria and Italy when Joerg Haider of the neo-fascist Freedom Party joined the government in Austria or when the anti-foreigner Lega Nord became part of Silvio Berlusconi's rightist coalition in Italy. Demonstrations were held every day of the two weeks separating the first and second rounds, with as many as 1.5 million people gathering to protest against the extreme right on May Day.

Because leftist forces decided to bar the way to the extreme right, Jacques Chirac won a second presidential term with over 80 per cent of the vote. Ironically, the man who had won the least number of votes ever of any right-wing first-round winner, was elected President with the biggest-ever margin in the history of the present Fifth Republic, inaugurated in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle.

As with Wim Kok's government in the Netherlands, Lionel Jospin was not given enough credit for the performance of his government. Few disagree that he governed France with devotion and diligence over the past five years, introducing genuine reform, reducing the unemployment figure by a million, extending health care and benefits to the poorest, privatising the public sector, reducing working hours, leaving the economy in a much healthier state than what he inherited.

France now has a right-wing caretaker government led by a handpicked Chirac man, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Legislative elections are to be held on June 9 and 16. Although the extreme right is expected to win a handful of seats, Jacques Chirac's conservative supporters are largely expected to carry the day.

Towards the end of the 1990s Europe was social democratic and the European Union was at pains to find the right balance between productivity, keeping the competitive edge in a market economy and social issues such as a redistribution of wealth to even out the imbalances in society. Today there is a distinct veering to the right. Social democrats have lost in Italy, Austria, Spain and Denmark, while Britain's Tony Blair and his New Labour can hardly be held up as a model of left-wing policies.

A more worrisome phenomenon is the strong showing by extreme-right parties such a Belgium's Vlaams Blok, Austria's FPO, Italy's Northern League and to some extent the reformed former fascist party Allianza Nazionale, the People's Party in Denmark, the Truth and Life Party in Hungary, the Pim Fortuyn List in Holland, Germany's Schill Party and of course Le Pen's National Front in France. Evidently, local conditions contributing to the rise of these extremists differ from country to country.

There are, however, some common factors. Within Europe, there appears increasingly to be a chasm separating the governed and the governing. The sophistication, flexibility and audacity demanded by a technology-driven, extremely mobile, global economy dancing to the tune of fickle and ever-changing public tastes has left large numbers of people bewildered and unable to cope. In several countries of the European Union, people feel that their own state has become a mere puppet whose strings are pulled by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, where the E.U. headquarters is situated.

Many of those who vote extreme right are the unemployed and the under-qualified who have been left by the wayside in the latest "survival of the fittest" push to adjust to brute market forces. And if there is one theme that has dominated extreme right-wing rhetoric these past few years, it is immigration. Most right-wing demagogues argue, and Le Pen is no exception, that high crime rates are a result of high, unchecked immigration encouraged by the social democrats' habitually soft response to crime.

THE French and the Dutch would like the world to believe that theirs is an open society whose philosophy is welcoming, even-handed and just. But today, with leaders like Le Pen egging them on, France is becoming withdrawn and xenophobic, even racist. The same cannot be said about the Dutch yet, but immigrant leaders are worried.

Voters in Holland were bored by their politicians' plodding, consensual approach to politics. In France they are so wearied of corruption, lack of innovation and an absence of any genuine public debate on issues of importance that 30 per cent of them did not vote. Anti-National Front demonstrations in most major cities in France point to a feeling of collective guilt and shame. However, 57 per cent of those polled say they are worried about high crime rates and immigration.

Jean-Marie Le Pen paints a frightening picture of immigrants descending upon France robbing the French and snatching their jobs. But statistics provide a different picture. Over the past three years the number of immigrants coming legally into France has declined steadily and less than 50,000 immigrants came into the country last year. France now rejects 85 per cent of all pleas for political asylum and the number of illegal immigrants entering this country has reduced to a trickle. Joblessness among the immigrant community is as high as 20 per cent, a whole 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

The problems began in the 1950s in France when post-War "Islamic immigration" first started. Since most of them came from France's colonies, there was an inherent attitude of contempt towards the immigrants. Most of these workers, unlike the majority of European immigrants, were unlettered and coloured. They were housed in shantytowns or bidon villes that gave way to housing estates on the periphery of large towns. France's North African immigrant slums were born. In the minds of many people these ghettoes are synonymous with crime, drug abuse and trafficking, illiteracy, violence and Islamic fundamentalism.

Politicians complain that there are "certain communities, particularly the North African Arabs, that refuse to integrate." They have perhaps not been encouraged to integrate and they perhaps cannot integrate in the way the French understand the word. For one, they look, speak and behave differently from most Europeans. The French view of "integration" is also at the heart of this problem. France is so stuck in the rut of being French that any suggestion about introducing Arabic in schools for children whose parents speak the language at home is equated to "a threat to the French national identity".

The fault also lies with the state, whether in Holland, France or anywhere else in Europe where immigrants' inability to integrate has become an issue. Says Mustapha Demir, a Dutch left-wing activist of Turkish origin: "We are Dutch or French or European, if you will, because we are second-generation migrants. But we have been pushed into ghettoes. By law we are Europeans but our governments do not treat us the way they treat white Europeans. This is definitely a question of race and colour, not of religion. Why do Algerian children or Moroccan children show the same rates of delinquency in their home countries and why is that level higher in Europe? It's because they are made to feel foreign, inferior, alienated. There should be much more investment in education, housing, training for the immigrants. Religion is not the issue. It is only an alibi."

Politicians, too scared to address this emotive issue by squarely looking it in the eye, have continually scuttled a genuine debate on immigration. Europe's population is ageing fast. The birth rate remains very low and in a couple of decades European societies may not be able to renew themselves nor be able to pay for the generous pensions, health care and social security benefits.

Says sociologist Francoise Gaspard: "The employment base has to be broadened if we are to meet these challenges three decades down the road. Beating immigrants on the head and reviling them is the worst path to follow. We must reflect upon what type of immigration we need, what skills, what training, what laws. If we insist Muslim immigrants should not be allowed four wives or that Muslim girls should go to school, we must also insist that Muslims or other immigrants are not discriminated against while looking for jobs, housing, loans. They must be given the respect they deserve as citizens of this or that nation and of Europe, and this respect must come not just through fine words of liberty, equality and fraternity, but also through action. By that I mean through investment in housing and infrastructure, education and training."

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