Peter Popham: Rise of far right threatens to pollute politics across Europe

So far none of these rapidly growing parties has succeeded in forging a meaningful alliance with any of the others across national borders

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They may not have claimed ultimate victory, but the biggest winners of the elections in France and Greece were the parties of the extreme right. Fringe parties, some of them routinely labelled "neo-Fascist" until recently, have made stunning inroads into mainstream European politics, to the point that in France, Norway, Finland, Hungary and Austria they either hold or threaten to hold the balance of power. Governments are increasingly faced with the choice of either giving ground on hot-button issues such as immigration and Islam, or ceding power.

In Greece, its disastrous economy in the hands of European moneymen, its political establishment rotten with corruption and unemployment among the under-25s cresting 50 per cent, this general election has seen a host of extremist parties emerge from the woodwork like termites.

The leader of Chrysi Avgi ("Golden Dawn"), Nikos Michaloliakos, would not have been given the time of day in most EU countries only a short while ago. An open admirer of Hitler (he has called him "a great personality of history"), Mr Michaloliakos has adopted the Nazi salute and a version of the swastika as his party's emblem. One of his candidates in this election remarked laconically: "Most of the money is in the hands of the Jews." At the last election Golden Dawn polled a derisory 0.29 per cent; this time they are expected to crash through the 3 per cent threshold to end up with a dozen MPs in parliament.

That will still put them many miles away from holding power. But in Greece, as in many other countries, the danger is not a far-right takeover but ideological contamination of the parties in power.

Last week, attempting to steal the far right's thunder, the technocratic government of Lucas Papademos set up a camp for illegal immigrants and promises to establish dozens more.

In the Netherlands the power of the far right was demonstrated last week when Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, anti-Muslim and anti-EU, brought down the government, wrecking a long-standing financial pact with Germany which had been one of the pillars of EU stability.

In France the rise of the Front National under Marine Le Pen has already dramatically altered the terms of the presidential election decided yesterday. When the FN polled 17.9 per cent in the first round two weeks ago, President Sarkozy immediately toughened his rhetoric. "Islamism is the totalitarianism of religion," Ms Le Pen declared last week. Mr Sarkozy promptly followed suit, as John Lichfield reported in the Independent on Sunday yesterday, lashing out at "such menacing enemies as halal meat in school canteens and special hours for women in swimming pools".

Across Europe, from Britain, where UKIP – "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" according to David Cameron – averaged 14 per cent in last Thursday's local elections, to Finland, where the extreme nationalist True Finns party has increased its share of the vote from 4 per cent to 19 per cent in four years, to Hungary, where the anti-Roma, anti-Semitic Jobbik party holds the balance of power, the far-right is seizing the initiative provided by recession and the threat of a eurozone meltdown.

The only crumb of comfort is that so far none of these rapidly growing parties has succeeded in forging a meaningful alliance with any of the others across national borders. Nicolas Lebourg, an authority on the far-right at the University of Perpignan, was yesterday quoted as saying: "Europe is a dry prairie waiting for someone to light a match." But given the nationalistic obsessions of all these far-right parties – Golden Dawn says "the nation comes first, democracy after" – the EU's national borders would seem to be unbreachable fire-breaks. It's about the only consolation there is.

The right track: extremist Europe

France

Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, came third in the first round of the presidential elections with 17.9 per cent of the vote. She told her followers to cast blank votes at the run-off yesterday, blowing President Sarkozy's chances of taking the far-right vote for his campaign.

 

Greece

The extreme-right Golden Dawn party seemed set to gain parliamentary seats for the first time last night, as voters made their anger known over austerity measures, and the main two parties.

 

The Netherlands

The Dutch nationalist Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, is the third-largest in parliament. It brought down the minority government last week by withdrawing its support.

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