Europe's far right on the march

Mark Seddon looks at how the far right is gaining ground amid Europe's economic crisis.

    Fascist salutes greeted the election of Gianni Alemanno as the far right mayor of Rome [EPA]

    As delegates gather at a United Nations anti-racism conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Mark Seddon looks at how the far right is gaining ground amid Europe's continuing economic crisis.

    The far right is on the rise throughout Europe, riding a perfect storm of unemployment, declining wage levels, poor housing and immigration.

    As the economic recession bites deeper, and as labour mobility in Europe all too frequently becomes a race to the bottom, with workers forced to undercut each other, so an increasing tide of racism and xenophobia threatens the established political parties.

    The growing movement also poses questions for the post-World War II liberal political settlement, that with the defeat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was supposed to do away with the spectre of fascism for ever.

    The European Union is itself under attack as Europeans go to the polls on June 7 to elect a new parliament, and all the evidence points to sweeping gains for far-right parties.

    'Anti-politics' mood

    In many countries, the far right is tapping in to a widespread "anti-politics" mood.

    What unites the movement is a belief that there are too many foreigners in Europe, that they should be induced to return from whence they came, and that the established political order needs to be overturned - not least the EU itself.

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    In some countries, the traditional parties of organised labour and the left have split, or moved their centre of gravity to the right in order to counter this new wave of rightwing populism.

    In so doing, a vacuum has been created, nowhere more so than among some of the more deprived traditional working-class communities that now frequently have very little work.

    The European Parliament elections are based on proportional representation and characterised in many states, by a very low turnout.

    This helps the far right, as it does the far left.

    Berlusconi defiance

    In Italy, the far right now forms part of a coalition government with Silvio Berlusconi's administration, with the xenophobic Northern League and the post-fascist National Alliance being given senior positions in government.

    The National Alliance is led by Gianfranco Fini, and his party has advocated authorising coastguards to shoot human traffickers as well as arguing that the EU is run by paedophiles.

    Berlusconi, right, defied international criticism by enlisting Fini's support [EPA]
    Berlusconi defied international criticism by enlisting the support not only of Fini but also Alessandra Mussolini (the granddaughter of the former Italian dictator), a leading far-right figure in her own right.

    A year ago this month, Fascist salutes greeted the election of Gianni Alemanno as the far right Mayor of Rome, and anti-immigrant sentiment is running high across the country ahead of the European elections.

    In France, the high water mark for the far right came when Jean Mari Le Pen's National Front party garnered about six million votes, when he beat Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, into fourth place in the 2002 presidential elections.

    The National Front has yet to improve on that performance, but the continuing disarray of parties on the left, including the Communist Party, now a fraction of its former self, mean that the potential is still there.

    Deepening rifts

    Turning to northern Europe, in recent years, Belgian politics have become characterised by a deepening rift between the French-speaking south and the Flemish North.

    This division has deepened by the emergence of the far-right Flemish Bloc party as one of the biggest movements.

    Not only does the Flemish Block advocate home rule, but it is fiercely anti-immigrant and openly anti-Semitic. Its influence continues to grow.

    The late Haider's Freedom Party is deeply embedded in the south of Austria [AFP]
    While the death of , the charismatic Freedom Party leader, in a car crash deprived Austria of its most effective far-right leaders.

    The Freedom Party is deeply embedded in the south of the country, and has already spent a controversial period in a coalition government in Vienna.

    Despite criticism, Haider and other leaders of the Freedom Party were frequently pictured attending and speaking at reunion gatherings of the war-time Waffen SS.

    Austria, unlike Germany, was never subjected to the intensive de-Nazification campaigns that followed from the defeat of Adolf Hitler.

    In Britain, the British National Party (BNP), the successor organisation to the National Front, has, in common with its sister parties, attempted to shed the hardline, sometimes violent image associated with some of its shaven-headed supporters.

    Britain's "first past the post" electoral system for elections to parliament has ensured that the BNP has never gained a member of parliament.

    But local and European elections are a different matter, and the BNP has high hopes of making a major breakthrough and winning between four and eight seats in the European elections in June.

    Lapsing memories

    The days of far-right parties commanding barely a handful of votes at elections are over.

    Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, has cast doubt on the Holocaust taking place [AFP]
    Once associated with obscure commemorations and rallies for Rudolf Hess, the last Nazi prisoner, who was held in Berlin's Spandau prison until his death in 1987, many of the far-right parties have distanced themselves from the more obvious paraphernalia of fascism.

    While their ideological roots lie with the pre-World War II fascist movements, their public face is often one of moderation and reason.

    To an extent, that approach may have served its purpose.

    The time distance between the fall of Nazi Germany and the present is sufficiently long for younger generations to be ignorant of the full horror perpetrated in the name of fascism.

    And when world leaders, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, cast doubt on the Holocaust, as he did in Geneva this week, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier for the far right to follow in his wake.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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