How the extremists have thrown another rock in the pool

From the Rhone to the Rhine, candidates on the right have exploited voters' fears and their disenchantment with the political elite
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The Independent Online

Perhaps we should not be too surprised by the earthquake that shook French politics on Sunday. From Rotterdam to Rome, from Antwerp to Innsbruck, Europe's voters have developed a new taste for kicking their politicians where it hurts.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, is just the latest and most extreme of the maverick, populist or downright xenophobic right-wingers to oust established incumbents in a series of shocks across Europe.

In Austria, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and France politicians opposed to immigration, hostile to the EU – and sometimes with fascist sympathies – have made significant inroads. Mainstream politicians face a new threat and the strength of their reactions seems to indicate they know it.

Neil Kinnock, vice-president of the European Commission and former leader of the Labour Party, said he was "astounded and horrified" by Mr Le Pen's success. It "throws a great dirty rock into the European political pool", he said.

In Sweden, Gorän Persson, the Prime Minister, said "all democratic forces must unite against right-wing extremist politics and xenophobia".

The spread of the condemnation of Mr Le Pen's success is no accident. In the past two years, the far-right has made strides in the north and south of the Continent.

It was Austria, and its Freedom Party, that led the way with an election success that catapulted its former leader Jörg Haider into the front line. Mr Haider – famous for his praise of Nazi employment policies and defence of the Waffen SS – has stepped down from his post as party leader but remains in office in Carinthia and is a power broker at national level.

But, when the Freedom Party joined the Austrian government, the other 14 EU member states severed all bilateral political contacts to express their disapproval. If that was supposed to discourage the far right, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

In September of that year, the "no" campaigners in the Danish referendum triumphed with the backing of the anti- immigration far-right led by Pia Kjaersgaard (whose platform also includes the medical castration of sex offenders). In October of the same year, the separatist Flemish national party the Vlaams Blok (whose election literature said drug dealers and criminals always seemed to be black) won a third of the vote in municipal elections in Antwerp.

Last year, the trend continued when elections in Italy brought the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi into power with the support of the post-fascist National Alliance, whose leader recanted his description of Mussolini as the greatest statement of the 20th century. Also in the government is the virulently anti-immigration Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi who recently described the EU as the "new fascism".

In the Netherlands, the political elite is shellshocked by the rise of the shaven-headed, populist anti-immigration campaigner, Pim Fortuyn.

In some respects, these figures could hardly be more different: Mr Fortuyn is a flamboyant, gay, ex-sociologist who has expressed his horror at being compared to Mr Le Pen (the feeling may be mutual).

But all the far-right parties swim in a similar pool of disenchantment, exploiting the same fear of crime, insecurity, worries over globalisation and – most of all – concern about immigration.

This is not simply a question of xenophobia; all European countries are battling to manage a failing asylum and immigration system. The European Commission has proposed an orderly, managed immigration system that would help to plug Europe's growing shortage of skilled labour but the politicians usually prefer tough rhetoric even if the voters see through it.

Concern over immigration is not restricted to countries where the far right has prospered. As one EU diplomat pointed out, the rhetoric of Ms Kjaersgaard and Mr Fortuyn is not a million miles from the rhetoric of British ministers about asylum-seekers.

But, in the aftermath of 11 September, the far right has become bolder about expressing sentiments that would once have been denounced as racist. Ms Kjaersgaard, for example, has called for a "holy war" against Islam.

The political extremes have also exploited growing disenchantment with the political elite. Low turn-out is now a feature of Western elections: in 1999, British participation in the European elections was just 24 per cent and the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty probably failed because of the low turn-out. America has similar problems, with less than half of voters casting a ballot in the mid-term congressional elections.

Disenchantment with conventional political parties is expressed in many ways. And it is fuelled by the fact that, across Europe, the leading parties have buried many of their big ideological differences.

Many are ruled by coalitions that are difficult to evict. Membership of the euro has neutered debate over economic policy because governments have to meet strict EU rules.

As Richard Corbett, constitutional affairs co-ordinator for Socialists in the European Parliament, puts it: "The situation is exacerbated where you have all-party coalitions or, as in France, the conception that it is the case because of cohabitation [of a centre-right president and a centre-left prime minister]. Broadly based coalitions find it very hard to satisfy their supporters and, when people want to protest the only alternative is to turn to the fringes."

The far-right gains should be kept in perspective. In France, Mr Le Pen's success is more a result of the electoral system that encourages a protest vote in the first ballot.

But the phenomenon has made the lack of connection between the EU and its citizens a central issue. The so-called "disconnect" will feature prominently in an inquiry into the future of Europe, headed by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Across Europe there is a dilemma over whether to exclude extremists from power. In Belgium, for example, no other party will enter a coalition with the Vlaams Blok but that has allowed the party to present itself as the only one uncontaminated by office; by contrast, in Italy where the National Alliance is a main part of the government, its leader, Gianfranco Fini, has moderated as the party grows in respectability.

And the rise of the right has flashed a warning to politicians to get closer to voters. Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, said: "Moderates should have learnt that they cannot expect people to vote for them because they are there: they have to answer people's concerns".

A protest vote, after all, is part of democracy, however unsavoury its recipient.

Could it happen in Britain?

Monsieur Le Pen's success has sent shockwaves through the capitals of Europe. Where next might a breakthrough occur? Is Britain the likely place?

There is no immediate prospect of the far right here scoring the kind of success it secured in France. After all, the far right has been a significant electoral force in France for at least 20 years. Mr Le Pen's 17 per cent tally was only two points higher than his party's score in the previous presidential and parliamentary elections. In contrast, Britain's main far- right party, the British National Party, managed just 0.2 per cent of the vote in last year's general election.

But that does not mean the BNP can be ignored. It has some pockets of apparently growing local strength and it is hoping to turn those pockets into electoral success in the English local elections on Thursday week.

Top of the BNP's hopes are Burnley and Oldham. The party secured record tallies of more than 10 per cent of the vote in both towns last June, ousting the Liberal Democrat into fourth place in the Oldham East seat. A few weeks later, both towns experienced serious racial tension from which the BNP hopes to benefit in the ballot box again next week. The party seems to be making a special effort in Burnley, putting up 13 candidates.

Burnley and Oldham are new pockets of strength for the BNP. Two years ago, the party did not put up a single candidate in Burnley and only one in Oldham ­ though in a portent of what was to come he managed to win nearly 10 per cent of the vote. In contrast, the East End of London is a more traditional source of far-right electoral success. Indeed, it has even captured a council seat there in the past.

And London's boroughs will also be voting next week. Even four years ago, the BNP could score up to 17 per cent of the vote in places such as Millwall and Canning while it saved two deposits in the East End in last year's general election. We should not be surprised if there were some double-digit scores again.

The far right may not be the force it is in France. But it is certainly capable of caus-ing some local difficulty.

John Curtice

John Curtice is deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends.