The extreme right rears its head

Flora Lewis

January 28, 1992|By Flora Lewis

Paris -- WHILE THE focus is on the East, Western Europe has entered what might be called a period of national psychic troubles.

It may be a concluding shudder before the plunge into the coming European union, it may be a contagion as Cold War assumptions give way to myriad uncertainties.

Like resurgent nationalism in the East and fundamentalism in Islam, it has to do with identity and asserting difference at a time of rapid change.

The essentially procedural definitions of capitalism as an impersonal market force and democracy as an arithmetical political force have left an emptiness.

They are negative guarantees, not against making mistakes and doing injustice, but of opportunities to correct and adjust.

Inspiration has ebbed and xenophobia is mounting as some people, especially disoriented youth, grope for enemies to justify their unease.

Most attention is paid to Germany, because of its terrifying Nazi past and because of its new power.

But the rise of the extreme right is more marked in France and the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is emerging as an international symbol of resentful discontent.

Premier Edith Cresson has launched a suit against him on behalf of the government for having collectively insulted it as a collection of thieves, racketeers and gangsters.

That is an odd approach to the political wars and reflects a weakness of leadership which affects almost the whole of Europe.

A Winston Churchill would have found stinging words to put Le Pen down more effectively than taking him to court.

But the move has won fairly general approval, at least so far.

Le Pen is a round-faced, almost jolly-looking man adept at the snide remark and the politics of hate. A recent poll put him ahead of all the other parties among 18- to 34-year-olds.

He doesn't really have a program, but then neither do the mainstream politicians, and he makes it easy to blame someone else for whatever seems wrong.

The extreme right never really disappeared in Europe. I happened to attend a meeting in France over a decade ago with Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Austrians and English people who didn't hide their views in private but spoke euphemistically in public.

That reserve is disappearing now and these ideologists are reaching out to make contact with the disgruntled, many of whom used to find expression for their protest on the now-discredited far left.

Nationalism and opposition to foreigners is a running theme, yet they seem to get together happily enough to denounce everybody else.

There is a network which bears watching, fed unintentionally as governments respond to the grievances of their constituencies without sufficient explanation of the need and advantages of compromise as they negotiate to function in the wider world.

Despite the ease of travel and instant communications, there are still almost closed compartments of information and opinion which are misread outside and provoke hostile reaction.

Germany's insistence on recognizing Croatia without a settlement of the Yugoslav war was an example.

It was taken elsewhere as a sign of Germany's new power assertiveness, rebuilding old links between the Hitler regime and the Nazi puppet state.

Germans are scarcely aware that others see it this way and think it simply obvious that they who benefited from self-determination to regain sovereignty and unity should give full support to others who claim the same right for independence.

Narrow domestic political calculations of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher played a role, but he could not have swung the country on his own.

There was a groundswell of opinion, influenced by the media, which trumpeted the Croatian view, and by hundreds of thousands of Croatians who have settled in Germany.

There is still only a limited Europeanwide public, informed of what their neighbors think and why.

The leaders do little to broaden understanding when they meet at summits, preferring to play to the home audience with the claim they fought the hard fight and triumphed.

That is what happened at the recent meeting in Maastricht, Netherlands, which approved the European union treaty.

It will take more to awaken the necessary new enthusiasm to make Europe work. The far right is counting on the appeal of old fears, traditional antagonisms and the consolation of clan to enlarge its forces.

It remains marginal and exclusionary, but it signals the importance of instilling hope and a sense of fruitful purpose as nations work together, which they must.

Differences will persist, as enrichment or as new disorder, which can bring catastrophe. The choice must be made clearer.

Flora Lewis, who is based in Paris, was the foreign-affairs columnist for the New York Times for 10 years.

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