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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
The rise of the European right
Jean-Marie Le Pen
Enter stage right: Le Pen's success is part of a trend

Jean-Marie Le Pen's second place in the first round of the French presidential election has shocked political circles across Europe.


Mr Le Pen's success shows that if the mainstream political parties fail to deal with domestic issues, there are other plenty of extreme groups ready to pick them up

"Hit by a thunderbolt" was how one Italian newspaper put it; another said it was a warning to the whole of Europe and a lesson to be heeded.

European politicians are certainly trying to work out what lessons are applicable to them.

That means first of all disentangling the specifically French reasons for Mr Le Pen's success.

Phenomenal

He is a powerful campaigner, experienced and adept at working the crowds.

The Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, by contrast, was uninspiring, and the left-wing vote was split - a veteran Trotskyist attracted substantial support for a platform to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Then there is the French system of two rounds of polling: this encourages people to cast votes for a protest candidate on the first round in the usual expectation that he or she will not in fact be elected.

Joerg Haider
France led EU sanctions against Austria over far-right leader Joerg Haider
But the result also reflects unmistakeable trends across Europe as a whole: a general move to the right and the rise of new populist parties with an anti-immigrant and anti-crime message.

This latter phenomenon has appeared even in traditionally liberal societies like Denmark and the Netherlands.

Two years ago, in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party of the erratic populist Joerg Haider entered the government.

As a result, Austria was boycotted for several months by its European Union partners; France - ironically - played a leading part in that campaign.

Last year the left-of-centre government in Italy was voted out of office.

The new Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, formed a coalition including Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance, now respectable but with roots among Mussolini's fascists.

The elegant Mr Fini looks down on Mr Le Pen as a crude figure.

Scandinavia heads right

There have been other more recent blows to the left in Europe.

They were defeated in Norway last September, and in Denmark in November the Social Democrats were voted out. There, the anti-immigration and anti-European Union People's Party became the third largest in the country.

In the Netherlands, another anti-immigration party is campaigning strongly for next month's parliamentary election.

This party, Pim Fortuyn List, is led by a homosexual and former Marxist.

It is quite a different beast from the French National Front and indignantly rejects comparisons with Mr Le Pen.

On the other hand, the leader of the right wing Vlaams Blok in Belgium, which took a third of the vote in Antwerp two years ago, described Mr Le Pen as a brother in arms.

Different figures, same issues

The key issues, in any case, are the same across Europe.

Pim Fortuyn
The Netherlands' Pim Fortuyn rails against Muslims
Many voters perceive a link between crime and immigrants; that combines with anxieties about job security, blamed on globalisation or sometimes the EU, and with disgust at political corruption.

The new right-wing parties may sometimes be called post-fascist, but they do not seem to be vulnerable to attempts to associate them with the old fascist movements of the 20th century.

Mr Le Pen himself, after all, in his most notorious remark, once referred to the Nazi death camps as a detail of history.

Since the suicide hijackings of 11 September, fears of terrorism and prejudice against Arabs and Muslims may be feeding the appeal of the far-right parties.

But it is the domestic issues that really count.

Mr Le Pen's success shows that if the mainstream political parties fail to deal with them, there are other plenty of extreme groups ready to pick them up.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
"There are a lot of lessons for European political parties"
EU Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten
"I think many people have a sense of loss of identity"

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