Christopher Walker: Don't blame the euro for Le Pen

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Paris on the eve of the presidential election was not a happy town. The French are not slow to take to the streets, and Mr Le Pen's "triumph" in the first round was ample provocation. I fought the gridlock and the rain, to make a gloomy soiree of Anglo-French euro bondage. "Have you read his economic policies? He really wants France to pull out of the euro." The corporate bond girl from London suddenly looked elated. "Now wouldn't that be amazing?"

To read the British press you would think the whole of the Continent is about to disappear under a neo-Nazi tidal wave. The shocking assassination of Pim Fortuyn, after Jean-Marie Le Pen's five million French votes, has awakened us to the extent of the extreme-right-wing movement sweeping Europe. It's only a year since French poli-ticians were sneering snootily at Jörg Haider's support in Austria; now Francophobes can delight in the squirming of the Quai d'Orsay.

The temptation to see uniformity in this new-right wave is great – but misplaced. Pim Fortuyn was openly homosexual, favoured drug liberalisation and had a black deputy; Mr Le Pen is accused of quoting Adolf Hitler directly and reportedly once sold tapes of Nazi marching songs by mail order. In the words of Mr Le Pen, the two men "did not move in the same circles".

And yet there are factors linking their recent success. On Tuesday the Irish finance minister Charlie McCreevy warned that the European Commission should note the rise of extremist parties and start to respect "the parameters of political reality". This argument ruffled feathers at the meeting of 15 EU finance ministers, with talk of a desire to "stand back from a headlong rush at European integration". It seemed that the euro was suddenly branded a neo-fascist plaything.

The suggestion that Brussels is again the root of all evil is bound to find many supporters in the Square Mile, but it is a little rich. While nationalistic language has indeed characterised all the right-wing movements' manifestos, attacks on Brussels and the euro have been low on the agenda. In the fantasy world of Mr Le Pen's view of history there is a small role for "euro globalist domination"; it is surely eclipsed by his horror at "colonial immigration".

It would appear that political commentators are struggling for an explanation. It is time for economic commentators to step in. Extremist politics normally arise from years of economic crisis, hyper-inflation and mass unemployment. The new-right wave comes after one of the longest and greatest booms the European economy has ever experienced. The French as a whole enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. Economic problems cannot be the cause, and it is notable that the cloak of the euro kept the French economy in protective custody during this flirtation with the far right. Surely the French franc would have experienced much greater volatility.

I'm afraid the more obvious issues of race and religion are to blame. Post 11 September, growing anti-Islamic feeling finds a home in some of the strangest places. Thus Mr Fortuyn spoke of the need for the Dutch to protect their liberalism against an oppressive religion that had not "been through the laundromat of the Enlightenment". The challenge for Europe's liberal establishment must be to fight this prejudice at source.

The founding fathers of Europe were responding to the charred remains of a divisive and embittered struggle against the extremists that had torn our continent apart. In uniting together to work for greater economic, and devolved political, union, they saw the best defence against another upsurge of fascism. This dream has not changed. If anything, its importance today is magnified.