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Ugly Currents in Europe

April 23, 2002

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's second-place finish over Socialist leader Lionel Jospin in the first round of French presidential elections is an embarrassment not just for France but all of Europe. Already, extremist parties have scored upsets in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Belgium. The rise of the far right in France, which is one of the main backers of the European Union, provides sustenance to xenophobic movements across the Continent.

Le Pen, 73, has described the Nazi gas chambers as "a detail" of history. A paratrooper in the brutal war in Algeria, he now represents the worst, most thuggish traditions of pre-World War II Europe. He has little chance of defeating President Jacques Chirac in the final runoff for the presidency May 5, but his success shows that Europe cannot be complacent about a rash of anti-Semitic attacks and rising anti-foreigner sentiment.

Like most demagogues, Le Pen claims to represent the excluded, the "little people" whom the establishment stomps on. There's not much he's for, and he's against plenty. He has long denounced immigrants (mainly the more than 4 million Muslims living in France), the European Union and globalization. But Sept. 11 and the French intellectual left's silly, impotent response to the war on terrorism--which amounted to blaming America--created opportunity for an intolerant backlash.

European leaders must immediately nail shut the door that Le Pen and his ilk are prying open. They need to say with resolve that the war on terrorism does not legitimize immigrant-bashing; that anger about Israel's current military campaign is no excuse for anti-Jewish bigotry; that fascism has no place in the 21st century.

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