Europe's right wounded, waiting for better days

July 11, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Does the right have a future? After being out of the White House for seven years, the Republican Party senses that it has a good chance to regain control of the executive branch. Thus, the phenomenal $36 million in campaign money raised already by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP's front-runner.

The major European parties of the right have no such dream. Not only are they out, but also in Britain and France, they are down and demoralized. The German Christian Democrats are holding up in public opinion against the divided and frequently incoherent coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, but elections are distant.

The British Conservative Party has declined into what often seems an anti-European sect, abandoning the center, as well as the left, to Tony Blair's Labor Party. The Tories' relatively good showing in the European Parliament vote in mid-May (an election largely ignored in Britain), derived from the fact that the party's voters really care about the question of Europe, and turned out.

A sadder spectacle is that provided by the French right, which a former prime minister, Pierre Mendes-France, once described as the most stupid right in the world. This was not a fair comment on its intelligence, which, as usual, in France is high, but on its character, which is deplorable and self-destructive. Its willful chieftains betray one another in power, and out of it refuse to yield to a common cause.

The result has been that while the British and German conservative parties were pleasantly surprised by their results in the European Parliament elections, the established French parties of the right collapsed altogether.

Blind ambition

The French right's European election fiasco this year had not only ruinous effect on the conservative parties, but undermined, probably fatally, the president's own chance to win a second seven-year term in 2002. One parliamentary deputy, in his 40s, has accused Mr. Chirac of "destroying a generation" out of his personal ambition.

Had the president not dissolved his conservative government -- which had a commanding majority in parliament in 1997 and three and a half years to go -- the right would have given an entire class of younger politicians ministerial experience.

The right, as a result, has dissolved into its natural components. The racist and reactionary extreme right, discredited by internal divisions, is no longer a significant force. A new "national sovereignty" movement, which defends the Gaullist idea of a "Europe of Nations," won the largest number of conservative votes in the European election.

The center has broken into separate Christian Democratic and market-liberal parties. What remains of Mr. Chirac's own party -- once Charles deGaulle's party -- now cannot even find someone willing to be its president.

It is striking that the failing British and French right have found nationalism their successful rallying point. In the 1990s, market liberalism seemed the important issue, but Mr. Blair is as much of a market liberal as Margaret Thatcher was, only more "caring," as the British say.

Seeking a `third way'

Mr. Schroeder in Germany declares that he is heading in the same "third way" direction as Mr. Blair, but Thatcherism has never found much sympathy even on the German right.

Market liberalism does not provide much grip for rightist renewal in France, as its advocates have discovered, to their disadvantage.

Europe's construction until now has been professed and legislated in terms of federalism -- meaning centralized authority in Brussels -- without ever confronting nationalism.

In the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties of recent years, nationalism was directly challenged. The issue consequently is growing in importance in most EU member countries. If this continues, the right may have a future after all -- in Europe, at least.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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