Europe's voices of insecurity

May 05, 2002|By Hugh De Santis

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Jacques Chirac should easily defeat extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen in today's presidential elections in France.

But neither Mr. Le Pen nor the public mood of insecurity that helped propel him into the second round is likely to soon fade.

Moreover, his success could embolden nationalistic and xenophobic parties elsewhere in Europe.

The outcome of today's election is not in doubt. Eager to restore the nation's dignity, voters on the left as well as the center will heed the admonition of political leaders to reject the extreme right.

But a Chirac victory will not marginalize Mr. Le Pen. His already strong showing is likely to benefit National Front candidates in next month's parliamentary elections. Depending on the number of seats they win, they could hold the balance of power if neither the center-right nor the center-left receives a majority.

It's too easy to dismiss Mr. Le Pen's success as a fluke, as some pundits have done. To be sure, the extreme right benefited from the peculiarities of France's two-round voting system, electoral apathy and the contrarian French spirit. But the turnout for Mr. Le Pen was undeniably a huge public protest of the man in the street against the political elite.

Does this suggest that Mr. Le Pen's victory heralds the ascendancy of the extreme right in Europe? That would be equally simplistic. Hungary has just rejected the conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his appeal to nationalism. The nativist, immigrant-bashing Northern League in Italy has lost public support, as have right-wing parties in Germany. In countries such as Britain, the far right is electorally inconsequential.

Still, something has changed in Europe.

Publics everywhere feel increasingly insecure, powerless to contend with the social and economic changes of the 1990s. Because the political class has ignored their concerns, they have become the foot soldiers of demagogues like Mr. Le Pen who champion their grievances.

Mr. Le Pen is just one voice in a rising chorus of rage that has become more audible. Although the tones and inflections may differ, Italy's Umberto Bossi, Austria's Joerg Haider, Switzerland's Christoph Blocher, and Denmark's Pia Kjaersgaard are part of the same politics of protest. So is Pim Fortuyn, a former sociology professor, likened by some to Mussolini, who is challenging Labor's leadership in the Netherlands.

All of these populist warriors are railing against rising crime rates, which is code for opposition to immigration. Crime has increased in the neighborhoods on the fringes of cities that house unemployed Arabs and Africans. Older people fear not only for their safety, but also worry that foreigners will deprive them of social services. The solution for Mr. Le Pen and others like him is to end legal immigration, deport illegal entrants and give the tax-paying citizenry priority for all jobs and public housing.

Job security is another source of anxiety; it is part of the reason Mr. Le Pen carried the industrialized north.

During the economic boom of the '90s, unemployment declined across the board in Europe. Recently, however, unemployment rates have been inching up, a trend that is exacerbated by rigid labor regulations and the movement of factories to low-wage countries. Economic insecurity has reinforced anti-immigration sentiment, particularly among the unskilled. Of course, xenophobes conveniently ignore the reality that Europe's declining birth rates and aging populations have necessitated the importation of skilled workers.

Xenophobia, nativism and racism are the outward appearance of the loss of cultural identity. The influx of newcomers with strange languages, customs and cultural baggage threatens the cultural homogeneity of host societies.

Europeans are undergoing the same social transformation experienced by the United States a century ago, when the mix of different peoples diluted the Anglo-Saxon composition of American society. They, too, are culturally and psychologically disoriented by the tide of social change, and they seek to return to a simpler, more predictable time.

In the end, the disaffected have turned to the far right because they have lost confidence in the ability of the traditional parties to manage social change. Both Lionel Jospin and Mr. Chirac paid lip service to public concerns about crime and taxes, but neither offered a plan of action.

Moreover, traditional parties have seemed more out of touch with local interests, more sensitive to the requirements of bureaucrats in Brussels than to the needs of their nationals.

A French pollster quipped that the Le Pen vote was "the first to sanction the political class for not listening." Let us hope that Mr. Chirac and political leaders throughout Europe will do a better job in the future. If not, a period of increasing political turbulence and upheaval lies ahead.

Hugh De Santis, a former State Department career officer, is president of an international consulting firm.

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