“Unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration. Bullshit! Come off it! The enemy is profit.”
As recession bites across Europe it may be time to revamp that old chant from the antiracist marches of the Thatcherite 1980s. Europe’s far right has been bubbling just off the boil for some time now. In France, Germany and Britain mainstream conservatives are playing a dangerous game, using Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric to woo working-class voters angered by cuts and job losses and offered no alternative story by politicians on the left.
Europe’s far-right groups don’t (yet?) form a movement. Though they share a hostility to immigrants and Muslims, they occupy different zones on the political fringe. The anti-Muslim Dutch MP Geert Wilders, for instance, on trial in the Netherlands for hate speech, turned his back on support from the street-fighting English Defence League at a rally last year: Wilders plays to the high ground with the free-speech card beloved of racists everywhere—and is busy chatting up the far right in the United States. (Banned from entering Britain, Wilders has been welcomed as martyr by Tea Party sympathizers; last month his claim that Islam is not a religion but a totalitarian ideology graced the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Compare that piece with this more explicit attack on “an ideology that can produce only deserts,” posted approvingly on Radio Patriot.) But the more they’re invited to tea by polite conservatives, the likelier they are to learn to play nicely together.
In France it will be illegal from next month for a woman to wear a veil that covers her face in public, even though only a few hundred women in the country do so; any woman caught outdoors in a niqab will be fined 130 euros and made to take a “citizenship class” on French republican values. This is no feminist measure: it penalizes women directly and restricts a choice which, in any case, may or may not be theirs. (Those who coerce women into wearing the niqab face much higher fines and a year in jail, but I doubt very many will ever be prosecuted.) President Nicolas Sarkozy is desperate to win the far-right vote in next year’s presidential election: Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist Front National and daughter of Jean-Marie, who recently compared Muslims praying outside overcrowded mosques to the Nazi occupation of France, is currently leading the polls. Marine’s no fool; she’s very pleased with Sarkozy’s strategy: “Every time he goes blah blah, my ratings jump five points.”
In Germany, Hans-Peter Friedrich, the newly appointed Interior Minister from the anti-immigrant Bavarian Christian Social Union—one of Angela Merkel’s two coalition partners—said last week that Islam doesn’t belong in Germany, after a gun attack by a 21-year-old Kosovar killed two US servicemen in Frankfurt. Other government members immediately pointed out that Muslims have been part of German life for generations. But Friedrich’s comment stands, another brick in the wall, alongside Merkel’s claim last October that multiculturalism has “utterly failed” and former Federal Bank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s best-selling book Germany is Destroying Itself, which argues that the country is being undermined from within by uneducated Turks and Arabs.
British Prime Minister David Cameron—who took his party into the far-right grouping of the European Parliament before the last election--echoed Merkel’s attack on multiculturalism in a speech last month in Germany, made on the day of a rally by the anti-Muslim EDL in Luton, north of London. His argument that involvement in nonviolent Islamic organizations leads on to violent extremism stigmatized a whole swath of community and religious groups, to which he plans to deny all public money and the right to meet in publicly funded institutions (read universities) unless they promote “British values.” It also gave aid and comfort to the Luton marchers chanting “Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah” in the biggest anti-Muslim rally Britain has yet seen.
As in Germany and France, Cameron’s remarks were disavowed by other ruling politicians—in this case Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats sank like a stone in a vote last week for a vacant seat in parliament, ceding second place to the nationalist and anti-immgrant UK Independence Party. But this ritual rowing back doesn’t undo the damage caused by Europe’s ascendant conservatives as they open the door to neo-fascists, racists and Islamophobes who used to be beyond the pale of mainstream politics.