French defeat, Dutch death

May 07, 2002

IN FRANCE, the extreme nationalist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen lost his bid for the presidency Sunday but pulled in more votes than he had ever received and left no one in doubt that right-wing discontent is a force to be reckoned with in Europe.

In the Netherlands, Mr. Le Pen's counterpart was assassinated yesterday, just nine days before general elections there. European politics haven't looked this grim in a long time.

Pim Fortuyn, who was shot and killed as he was leaving a Dutch radio station, objected to the comparison with Mr. Le Pen. He was openly gay, for one thing, and he said he wanted to preserve the Dutch tradition of tolerance, not obliterate it. But his proposed means? Cut off immigration. Mr. Fortuyn was tolerant of everybody except anybody who wasn't Dutch.

The right is resurgent in Western Europe. In country after country, the traditional political parties have been unable to address the often legitimate grievances of those who feel threatened by the loss of jobs and local control, by the blurring of national identity, by the rise in crime, by the idea of a remote "Europe" itself. New or formerly marginal parties, such as Mr. Le Pen's or Mr. Fortuyn's, have capitalized on resentment and fear among ordinary people - and stoked it.

Mr. Le Pen went down to defeat Sunday with 18 percent of the tally, which sounds like a crushing blow except it means he actually picked up votes from his showing in the first round in April, despite a frenzy of criticism within France and political demonstrations against him that brought as many as 2 million people into the streets. It also means that the left joined with the center-right to keep him out of office, but those bedfellows are already scrambling out from beneath the sheets. Today the French left, having been forced to back President Jacques Chirac, is nearly as angry as the French right.

Political violence and rabid intolerance bring to mind a Europe that nearly everyone would rather forget. A continent that gave rise to murderous ideologies in the 20th century is experiencing an unsettling beginning to the 21st, with venomous bitterness in France, a cold-blooded murder in the Netherlands, a theatrical right-wing premier strutting in Italy. Widespread one-day strikes are taking place in Germany, which itself is headed for elections in September.

Old ideas of what it means to be French or Italian or German are under assault on many fronts. Either Europe will find a way to deal with these stresses or the world will have to deal with the consequences.

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