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Europe's Drift to the Right Is Seen as a Wake-Up Call for Democracy


BERLIN — Hardly a soul believes that ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen can actually win the French presidency next month, but Europeans are collectively shuddering at the rise of right-wing nationalists who are playing on voters' fears of crime, unemployment and immigration.

Europe may still be far from the pandemic despair that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Today's sense of insecurity, however, is provoking some comparisons to the brooding atmosphere that led to social upheaval, dictatorship, atrocities and war.

At minimum, the far right appears to be tapping into unhappiness over deepening European integration, including increasingly open borders and the introduction this year of a common currency in France and 11 other countries.

Alarmed by Le Pen's second-place finish in the first round of the French presidential election Sunday, politicians across Europe cast the outcome as a wake-up call for mainstream parties and leaders to defend democracy against demagogues and opportunists.

Although Le Pen, who once dismissed Nazi gas chambers as "a minor detail in the history of World War II," is likely to be routed by incumbent President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff, far-right figures have triumphed elsewhere in Europe.

The xenophobic Freedom Party shares power in Austria, even though its charismatic leader, Joerg Haider, has stepped down. In Denmark, voter disaffection with left-of-center rule was galvanized by the strong anti-immigration platform of the Danish People's Party, which also sits in government.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate and no friend of the left, governs the country with the support of the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.

Mindful of the failed attempts at sanctioning Austrians for allowing Haider's party into government in 2000, most European leaders were restrained in their reactions to the news from France.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Le Pen's besting of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was "very sad," adding that in the runoff election, "we trust the French people to reject extremism of any kind."

"I hope that all democratic powers will unite against right-wing extremism and xenophobia," Sweden's Social Democratic Prime Minister Goran Persson said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said: "It's very regrettable that the extreme right has become so strong in France."

Though widely lamenting Le Pen's success, many European analysts blame the mainstream candidates--Chirac and Jospin--for failing to address voters' worries and allowing Le Pen to set the agenda.

"Jospin let himself be drawn into a campaign about 'internal security,' and on that issue drifted so close to the right that there was hardly any difference between their views," said Martin Koopmann, an analyst with Berlin's Society for Foreign Policy think tank. "This certainly damaged him, as voters in France--as in Germany--will always choose the original over the copy."

Crime is relatively low in most areas of Europe in comparison with the United States. Unemployment, although in double digits in Germany, is due more to rigid government labor regulation than an influx of cheap immigrant workers. Still, politicians such as Le Pen have manipulated those issues to convince voters that they are under threat from the foreigners among them.

"The current situation can't be compared to the 1930s, as one must see from the economic data that France is in a rather good position," Koopmann argued.

But others felt an ominous hint of recognition in the drift to the right. In Greece, where fascist occupation during World War II left deep scars on the national psyche, the daily Ta Nea wrote that "Europe freezes as fascism rises" and likened the spread of far-right influence to "resurrection of the vampire" that drained the continent's lifeblood during the Holocaust.

Greek government spokesman Christos Protopappas told the Eleftherotypia newspaper that Le Pen's showing represented "a danger for democracy, social cohesion and the prospects for Europe."

Franco Pavoncello, a professor at Rome's John Cabot University, argued that today's right-wing threat bears little resemblance to the one that gave rise to fascism.

"I don't see here Mussolini and Hitler," Pavoncello said of modern European nationalists, although he conceded that anti-immigrant sentiments are a genuine problem.

In Israel, where the legacy of the Holocaust serves to keep many attuned to emerging threats in Europe, Interior Minister Eli Yishai warned Jews across Europe about the risks of complacency in the face of growing anti-Semitism. He urged French Jews to emigrate to Israel, arguing that Le Pen's strong showing was "an expression of the anti-Semitic processes and attempts at Holocaust denial that are taking place not only in France but all throughout Europe."

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