Today in the European Parliament I sat in the same chamber as Jean-Marie Le Pen – someone I believe to be anti-democratic and racist. Yet, distasteful as it was, this was not an entirely novel experience. I am one of the handful of black members of the European Parliament and I'm afraid that we have had to share our chamber with fascists for nearly three years. From where I sit, Le Pen and his deputy Bruno Gollnisch are clearly visible. They believe I shouldn't be there but should be repatriated, presumably to India, the country of my parents. I have known that for some time.
Yet today was different. What struck me was how Le Pen's standing seems to have changed. In the 1990s, Le Pen was rapidly becoming a joke figure. Now he has come triumphant to our parliament in Brussels as a far-right hero and posing as a democrat to take his seat in Europe's parliament, even though he'd like to see France leave the EU. The tension and media interest was intense, but I think that the real lessons of Le Pen's triumph have yet to be fully learned.
First, Europe. We are told that the lesson for France and the EU is one of voter alienation, apathy and abstention. But this is only part of the story. I believe that substantial numbers of French voters knew exactly what they were voting for. Le Pen has been around for 25 years and people know what he stands for. It was reiterated constantly in the massive TV coverage prior to the first-round vote; he stands, above all, for repatriation. The change in language to reflect the new challenges for the far right could be seen in the vox pops from French Le Pen voters. They appear perfectly reasonable – but listen and you'll hear that they constantly talk about "crime and insecurity". All too often this is code for immigrant or black crime. It was a weak version of this that was taken up in Jacques Chirac's lacklustre campaign. With no effective response from the left, the ground was well prepared for a robust Le Pen campaign.
The second lesson is more important, however. We have to understand the under-reported but steady "mainstreaming" both of the far-right political parties and – most crucially – their ideas. They have all too easily entered mainstream politics across the EU.
Within only a few years the Danish Peoples Party has entered government; previously they had been dismissed as fascists. They still want zero immigration. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, the leader of the far right, is set to gain up to 20 per cent in the forthcoming general election. While not calling for repatriation, he too wants to see zero immigration. He is virulently Islamophobic and yet seems to have achieved a widespread acceptance in his own country and beyond.
Italy, Belgium and Austria have also all suffered their versions of far-right mainstreaming. See what has happened: the acceptability of ideas once considered to be fringe and extreme are now at or near the heart of government, national, regional and local.
The third lesson is for us here in Britain. The BNP will not follow the successful trajectory of the National Front in France. The BNP is still an insignificant force nationally. They are active in particular areas such as Oldham, Burnley and the East End of London – but the mainstream political parties have woken up to the threat and are putting more campaigning resources into fighting the BNP.
So does this mean that we have no lessons to learn? Quite the contrary. While we do not have the electoral system and the political history that would foster a surge in support for a Le Pen-style party, the danger we must avoid is far-right ideas and rhetoric being absorbed or becoming acceptable in our mainstream politics.
I agree very much when Tony Blair described Le Pen's policies as "repellent, racist and narrow-minded". But I would plead with both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to avoid trying to sate right-wing appetites on issues such as immigration, asylum and crime. Here lies the subtle but clear danger; a country like ours is never likely to have the high visibility of a Le Pen, but his ideas are dangerous, and I disagree with some of the language being used by the government in its descriptions of asylum-seekers and our asylum policy.
I understand when people say they are fed up of politically correct language, but we cannot use words like "swamping" about asylum-seekers when we'd never use them about any other section of society. Governments must listen, and if they perceive that what people want is better immigration and asylum policies then that's one thing. But to believe that measures such as greater detention of asylum-seekers or the failed voucher system will satisfy the BNP is folly. The BNP is not much interested in asylum policy when it attacks the third- and fourth-generation English-speaking Asians of Oldham and Burnley. Toughen up on one policy and they will simply up the ante on the next.
In France there is an unprecedentedly tough stance on immigration and internal controls, and that is why Le Pen moved on to crime. In the UK we must not make the same mistake. We must not let the BNP or its ideas come into the mainstream of politics.
The author is a Labour MEP for LondonReuse content