The far right is on the rise, in Europe as in the US. We don't need Marine Le Pen's surprise vote of 18 per cent in the first round of the French presidentials to tell us that. What it does tell us, however, and what has been so little understood so far, is the extent to which the far right has become part of the mainstream of politics, changing itself from the neo-fascist beliefs it espoused in the past to something much more moderated in its language as in its policies.
This is more than just a matter of presentation. Marine Le Pen has not just dropped some of the more outrageous positions of her father on Nazism and Jews. His daughter has worked hard to produce a less divisive and more nationalistic approach. She wants to stop immigration, of course, but her most aggressive stance is against Europe, finance and all the other "foreign" factors bringing the country down.
The same could be said of the far-right parties in the Netherlands, Central Europe and even in the Latin countries.
It's easy to put this down to the impact of the recession on working-class politics. And, of course, the impact of growing joblessness and the expenditure cuts has been severe on those worst hit by them. As the victims have now widened to include pensioners and savers caught out by low interest rates, as well as the young leaving school unable to find a job, there has been no shortage of voters flowing to the extremes of both right and left.
But the steady growth of the far right has been going on for much longer than that and can't just be put down to economic deprivation. Resentment against immigration remains a central factor but it goes further to cover a far more general, and less class-based, sense that a way of life is being imperilled by globalisation. Dr Matt Goodwin, of Nottingham University, has called it a "cultural nationalism" that takes in the veil and EU rules on cheese as much as it does racial hatred.
Traditional parties have found it very difficult to combat this trend – far more difficult indeed than beating back overtly racist extremism, not least because the language of the right is the populist language of the outsider which plays directly to the growing sense of disenchantment with traditional politics and parties.
President Sarkozy might try to tack to the right in order to gain Le Pen voters. He already is. But talking even tougher on immigration doesn't meet the anti-European, anti-finance rhetoric of Le Pen, not when you have made a claim of leading Europe through a close alliance with Germany (although, in some of his recent remarks, he has distanced himself from his partnership with Chancellor Merkel). If the far right has a hate figure, it is as much Sarkozy as the socialist leader, François Hollande. There's no guarantee that the votes will flood over to the incumbent President in the next round just because he's on the right.
It's too soon to write Sarkozy off. He may yet pull through because of Hollande's lack of charisma, and because of fears of a market reaction to the election of a left-wing president committed to revising the fiscal compact signed by the eurozone leaders earlier this year.
Even if there is a change in government, as most commentators in France seem to expect, the politics and even fiscal policy probably won't alter that much. The names will change but not the system.
But then that will only work to the hard right's advantage. Le Pen's great selling point, as with her fellow nationalists across Europe, is that the old politics is failing the country. The worst thing about the vote she scored last weekend was that the traditional parties seem so unable to provide an answer to it.
Hypocrisy at The Hague
Looking at that hard, ruthless face, it is difficult not to join the general cheer being raised at the conviction of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, for aiding and abetting war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Hard not to think, too, that this, the first conviction by an international court of an ex-head of state, will have the effect of striking fear in the hearts of other leaders guilty of war crimes.
That's the intention , at any rate. But it's not yet how the rest of the world necessarily sees it. Taylor's trial still has the smack of white man's justice to it – and not a little hypocrisy.
Taylor has been condemned for stoking up a rebellion in another country with appalling consequences for its civilian population. But what else was the West doing when it armed the Taliban to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and how else would you describe the calls to send arms to the insurgents in Syria, however noble their cause?
Taylor's defence was right on one point. He wouldn't be there if his machinations had suited our purposes.Reuse content