Leading article: A vote against racism in Europe

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The Independent Online
AT 10 o'clock this morning, 21 regional councillors in the south of France will decide whether or not a racist party makes one of the greatest democratic advances of postwar European history. The 21, who are members of the centre-right parties, have to choose between candidates for president of southern France's largest region, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur. They could vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, or for the socialist.

It is a decision of great moment not just for France but for the whole of Europe because whatever they decide, the situation is a warning of the sinister forces which stand ready to exploit arrogant, bureaucratic and remote European institutions in bad economic times.

If the councillors of Provence opt for Mr Le Pen, they will give the National Front its most prominent democratic platform. France's tier of regional government, invented 15 years ago by President Mitterrand in order to try to decentralise the French state, is still weak and Mr Le Pen would have few powers. But his authority as President Le Pen, not of the whole of France but of one of its most populous regions, covering all the territory from Marseilles to Nice, would be postively baronial.

Even if the councillors draw back from the brink, their dilemma only dramatises the fact that the centre-right's defences against the National Front have been smashed. Since the regional elections a week ago, the centre-right parties have relied on National Front support to hold onto five regional presidencies. The principle of refusing to treat with racists has been breached and the centre-right is now fundamentally split between those who are prepared to make alliances with the National Front and those who are not.

This is the important point. There have been alliances between the centre- right and the far right before, but they were 10 years ago, when the centre- right was much stronger. Now it seems that the weakened coalition of Conservatives will re-divide into two groupings. One will refuse to deal with the National Front and continue to search for a leader who can appeal across the centre of public opinion. The other will try to co-opt the far right's 15 per cent of the vote, arguing that to do otherwise would be to hand power to the left for a generation.

Much could depend on which wing gains the upper hand. There has always been a racist fringe to European politics, although for most of the time since 1945 a combination of economic prosperity and high-mindedness on the part of political leaders has kept it marginalised.

In Britain, we should be grateful to the Conservative establishment for keeping racism unrespectable. Great was the obloquy heaped on Enoch Powell: his death reminded us that his "rivers of blood" speech was a spectacularly erroneous prediction - but also that this was partly because Ted Heath had no truck with it. And whatever the faults of the recent Tory administration it must be said that John Major showed the kind of leadership that matters when it came to refusing to compromise with racism.

It is not enough to congratulate ourselves, however, because the French warning should be heard throughout the European Union. One of the faults of French politics has been the devotion of leaders in Paris to the goal of European integration, especially the single currency, seemingly at the expense of pressing social problems at home, especially youth unemployment. As ever, the issues of unemployment, crime and immigration fuelled the National Front's strong showing a week ago - issues on which the conventional parties seemed to have little credible to say. In this context, preaching from central government about the evils of racism is bound to seem irrelevant. This is a prime example of how the European Union is unable to explain itself to, or gain the meaningful consent of, the peoples of Europe. As The Independent has argued repeatedly, Europe needs a better, more democratic constitution.

Aha! the sceptic will exclaim triumphantly. Is it not the case that the only reason the French are in such a pickle is because of proportional representation? Well, it is certainly true that the National Front owes some of its electoral respectability to President Mitterrand's cynical attempts to divide the right, which included a tactical switch to a proportional system - which now remains only at regional level.

But racism is not something which can be designed out of the system. Whatever the system, it is still up to politicians to respond to the concerns of the voters and to demonstrate leadership. The real problem in France is the inability of national or local (or regional) leaders to convince hard-pressed middle to lower income voters that they are on their side. That is a problem which should be at the forefront of the minds of all Europe's leaders as they embark on the next stage of constructing the European Union.