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Euro election gets celebrity veneer

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Brussels

Former models and anti-Islamic firebrands are among some 9,000 candidates in the European election this week. But can they quicken the pulse of Europe's apathetic voters?

Rachida Dati
Rachida Dati is no longer the rising star of the Sarkozy administration

The election is a time for shock tactics and charm offensives, anything to get out the vote for an assembly that few people understand - perhaps not even the candidates.

Take Rachida Dati, the glamorous French justice minister and the first Muslim woman to get such a powerful post. Once a protegee of President Nicolas Sarkozy, she has become so unpopular that he wants her out, so he made her run in the European election.

Her heart clearly isn't in it. At a recent campaign meeting, asked if Europe meddled too much in national affairs, Ms Dati gave this answer, amid giggles: "It (Europe) looks after those things that we ask it to look after, with the people who are asked to look after them. In other words, us... I did well, didn't I?"

As number two on the list of the governing UMP party, Rachida Dati is bound to do well. And in time, she may become a force to reckon with in the European Parliament's dominant centre-right bloc.

Romanian glamour

The political future of another sexy celebrity looks more doubtful.

Elena Basescu
Elena Basescu wears more modest fashions now to fit her new image

Dubbed "the Paris Hilton of Romania", Elena Basescu, 28, is a former model with waist-long black hair who also happens to be the youngest daughter of the country's president. She is known to be more interested in parties than party politics.

Video clips of her verbal gaffes are internet hits. Although, after protests by other candidates from her father's Liberal Democrat party, Miss Basescu has had to run as an independent, she wasted no time in gathering 200,000 signatures for her candidacy.

But Italy has done most to spice up the European campaign. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the only leader of a big country to run in the election, heading the list of his centre-right party, the People of Freedom (PdL).

"Thank god we've got Silvio!" goes the chorus of the party's anthem, and up to 40% of Italians seem to agree. Not Mr Berlusconi's wife, who described the choice of several busty beauties as potential Euro-candidates as "a shameless diversion for the emperor". She later sued for a divorce over her husband's links to an aspiring model.

Mr Berlusconi fought back, insisting he would not accept any "smelly and badly dressed candidates". Barbara Matera, a former Miss Italy contestant and TV presenter, remains on the list.

With turnout expected to hit an all-time low, many agree that Europe needs a more attractive face. In the meeting rooms and corridors of Brussels, there is a lot of animated and fairly anguished talk about how much legitimacy the European Parliament can claim if, as expected, only a third of the voters turn up at the ballot.

Julia Decleck-Sachsse from the Centre for European Policy Studies thinks fresh and recognisable faces could be an antidote to apathy. "We've seen an effort in France, but also in other countries, to put recognisable faces out there to give voters something to latch on to, because voter apathy is a problem. They don't see the added value necessarily of the EU, the EU seems very remote, far away from their day-to-day concerns."

Swedish pirates

Listen out for fresh ideas too. Sweden's Pirate Party wants free access to the internet by reforming copyright law and the patent system. Its membership tripled in a week after four men from the Pirate Bay file-sharing website (which has no links with the party) received jail sentences for breaching Swedish copyright laws.

Pirate Party candidate list
The Pirate Party appears to be popular among Sweden's web generation

The Pirate Party's top candidate, Christian Engstrom, says that "the politicians seem to regard the internet as a toy, where they don't have to respect things like freedom of speech or privacy.

"We want to go to Brussels to remind them that universal human rights apply on the internet as well. And these issues are very much decided in Brussels, so it's the right place to be."

What established politicians fear most is the rise of extremist groups, fuelled by the worst economic downturn in a generation.

From Britain to Bulgaria, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic and anti-European parties are on the march. The most popular by far is the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). Its leader Geert Wilders, with his distinctive platinum bouffant hair and under constant police protection due to repeated death threats, has made his name attacking Islam.

"The leaders in Europe and in the European countries are selling out to the enemy, our culture, our identity," Mr Wilders told the BBC. "I am a politician who stands up and says enough is enough, Islam is not part of our culture, should never be and will never be."

Across Europe, far-right parties are hoping to gain at least 15 seats out of 736. The centre right is expected to remain the main force. But if elected, parties like Geert Wilders' say they will work to bring down the European Parliament from inside.



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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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