The Right Becomes a Major Factor - the European Right Has Attracted Voters in Western Europe Who Feel the Center-Left Parties Are out of Touch and Even Corrupt

By Tierney, Jack | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Right Becomes a Major Factor - the European Right Has Attracted Voters in Western Europe Who Feel the Center-Left Parties Are out of Touch and Even Corrupt


Tierney, Jack, The World and I


In Germany's September 22 parliamentary elections, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's left-of-center coalition was returned to power by the narrowest of margins. Schroeder's incumbent Social Democratic Party survived a conservative challenge led by Edmund Stoiber, governor of Bavaria, and a rightist coalition from the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union. Although both incumbent and challenger garnered approximately 38 percent of the electorate, the support of Germany's Green Party allowed Schroeder to sustain a 10-vote margin in parliament.

The German results have brought a sigh of relief from the European Left, which has spent most of 2002 fending off conservative challenges of complacency amid rising discontent about crime, corruption, and Muslim immigration. "A majority is a majority," declared a relieved Schroeder, but his narrow escape can barely disguise the growing conservative tide that has ambushed leftist governments since its initial stirring in France last spring.

The Le Pen factor

Amid nightmares of a fascist revival, Europe's politicians and pundits rose with a vengeance last April against French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen's challenge to President Jacques Chirac. Le Pen struck a sensitive political chord. The upheaval began on April 21 when he finished second in the first round of the French presidential election. Writing from Berlin, a Los Angeles Times correspondent called the event "a wake-up call."

Indeed it was! In France itself, the news was treated as a catastrophe, the more so since Le Pen had defeated the favored socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Laurent Fabius, France's finance minister and a former prime minister, spoke for the Establishment in describing Le Pen's triumph as a "cataclysm of terrifying proportions." But fear of Le Pen spanned the political spectrum. The conservative Le Figaro described the news as an earthquake. The left-wing Liberation's headline said simply Non. The mainstream center-left Le Monde wrote of a France "humiliated" and "wounded."

Thousands of progovernment demonstrators took to the streets of Paris and other cities in a nationwide protest against Le Pen. President Chirac refused even the courtesy of a debate, declaring that "faced with intolerance and hate there is no transaction, no compromise, and no debate possible."

Le Pen openly pushed his anti-immigration and nationalist views, with a dose of anti-Semitism. At one point calling the Holocaust "a detail of history," he was equally dismissive of the millions of France's immigrants, mostly North African Muslims: "Massive immigration has only begun," he thundered. "It is the biggest problem facing France, Europe, and probably the world. We risk being submerged." Chirac responded in equally apocalyptic terms, tying the election to "the future of France, of even the idea we have of our country, of its great humanist tradition, of its universal calling."

Most of the anti--Le Pen hysteria, however, was based more on fear than reality. As predicted, Chirac won handily with an 82 percent plurality in the May 5 runoff. Yet the fears were real and had been submerged for a considerable time; Le Pen struck at the right moment and on the most sensitive issues. While his particular challenge in France proved to be short-lived, the implications have permeated European politics. At the very least, the mere presence of Le Pen and his imprint on French politics symbolize a new political divide in a Europe still dominated by center-left coalitions. The recent scare to the incumbents in Germany only highlights this growing momentum.

Politicians from all corners of Europe responded to Le Pen with a rare degree of alarm at the turn of French domestic politics. At one point a demonstration of Euro MPs, waving placards that read No Nazis, disrupted a Le Pen press conference inside the European Parliament building. …

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