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Le Pen Vote Shows Rightward Trend While Europe Grapples with Changes

April 24, 2002
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The stunning success of extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of French presidential elections was the latest and most clamorous step in a recent, escalating shift to the right in Europe.

A perennial candidate who has been marginalized for decades because of his anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views, Le Pen came in a surprise second out of a field of 16 presidential hopefuls in Sunday’s vote.

He will face incumbent President Jacques Chirac, a mainstream rightist, in a runoff on May 5.

Le Pen’s success confirmed anti-immigrant sentiment and law-and-order concerns among the electorate, and moved these issues from the fringes to the center of mainstream political debate.

His showing also demonstrated a deep-seated popular disillusionment with mainstream political forces and their ability to deal with voter concerns.

It also reflected a clear trend on a continent facing major transformations as the European Union attempts to do away with borders and revamp traditional political, social and economic relations.

How to deal with an increasing influx of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from the developing world has become a key — and still unresolved — issue across Europe.

Linked to this is the impact of a large and growing Muslim population in many countries.

Friction has increased in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States and the revelations that Al Qaida terrorist cells apparently had operated with impunity in several Western European countries.

Right-wing populists appeal directly to grassroots fears linking crime, terrorism and job insecurity with immigration, E.U. expansion, globalization — and the mainstream parties’ inability to address these issues.

Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, called Le Pen’s success “a disturbing result in the light of Mr. Le Pen’s racist past, and it should trouble all those with long political memories.”

The far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party entered the Austrian government two years ago, thanks in large part to a protest vote by Austrians fed up with the stagnation of mainstream political forces.

In Belgium, the extreme right Vlaams Blok Party won 15 percent of seats in the Flemish Parliament and 9.5 percent of seats in the federal Parliament in 1999.

Far-right parties running on nationalist, law-and-order, anti-immigrant and sometimes anti-E.U. platforms also have made gains in Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere.

“I can’t say Le Pen’s strong showing is a shock,” said Paolo Rumiz, of Italy’s left-wing La Repubblica newspaper. “What happened in France could be seen coming. If the success of the right in France today surprises us, it is only because in recent years we did not understand that what was happening in small European countries, those that are more afraid of the impact of globalization, were not isolated cases or exceptions but foreshocks of a political earthquake of continental dimensions.”

Indeed, rightist leaders in small countries greeted Le Pen’s success with a sense of glee.

In Austria, where France strongly backed E.U. sanctions after the Freedom Party entered the ruling coalition, a spokesman called the vote a “slap in the face for the inventors and initiators of the E.U. sanctions against the Austrian government.”

In Belgium, Vlaams Blok leader Filip Dewinter said he was “very, very pleased that Le Pen scored such a large victory. It’s not surprising that French voters are moving to a far-right party. They have the same problems of insecurity, of immigration and political corruption” as do other countries.

A wave of anti-Semitic incidents in parts of Europe in recent months — largely at the hands of Arab youths protesting Israeli military retaliation against the Palestinians — has aroused fears that the surge of the far-right might bolster such acts and unleash a more widespread, latent anti-Semitism.

Jews have sharply criticized European governments for failing to crack down against anti-Jewish violence and for maintaining a one-sided, pro-Palestinian bias.

Paradoxically, many Jews share the right wing’s distrust and concerns about immigrants and the Muslim presence.

And, ironically, at least some right-wing leaders profess themselves to be friends of Israel and the Jewish people.

Pim Fortuyn, for example, who heads a rightist movement in the Netherlands, was described in The New York Times as being “as hostile to Muslim immigrants as he is supportive of Israel.”

In Italy, the right-wing National Alliance, which has roots in fascism, has emerged as one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in its current conflict with the Palestinians.

While most French Jews are expected to vote against Le Pen in the run-off, his unofficial adviser on Jewish affairs, Sonia Arrouas, who is Jewish, said that a Le Pen victory might be in the Jews’ interests.

“Le Pen is opposed to the Arabs and is, therefore, good for the Jews,” Arrouas told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Le Pen is pro-Israel and believes it is the only Western state in the Arab East, and this is why Israel’s security and existence is important to him.”

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