Far right on rise in Europe

POLITICS: ‘As anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor [now]’


WHEN France’s far-right National Front was newly minted in the 1970s, the people who backed it were stereotyped as working-class roughs with shaved heads and ugly tempers, sometimes photographed at street demonstrations with their fists punching the air. That was then. This is now.
Thibault, 22, lives in Paris and has just graduated from university with a commerce degree. He has studied overseas and he and his sister Camille, 18, who is studying art history, speak fluent English. Their mother is a school teacher and their father a retired businessman.
On a mild summer evening, they mill on the pavement with a couple of dozen other young people waiting to join a meeting of the youth wing of the National Front, the nationalist party led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jean-Marie once called the Nazi gas chambers “a detail of history”. Marine Le Pen has been accused of being Islamophobic.
Thibault has followed the party since 2002, when Jean-Marie caused a stunning upset by making it to the second round of the French presidential election.
“I couldn’t comprehend why there was so much hatred towards him and why he was being persecuted,” Thibault says. “I was aware that he had made homophobic and anti-Semitic comments and I’m happy now that such positions are no longer part of the Front National. It must be understood that he is obviously not the same age as Marine Le Pen and that he belongs to another generation . . . The party now truly reflects all of my opinions, whereas 10 years ago it would have troubled me.”
Thibault and Camille are part of the new face of the right in France, which has seen a surge of support among the young and those living in the provinces, many of whom are economic refugees fleeing the struggling banlieues (suburbs) that ring Paris.
The right is on the rise not just in France but across western Europe. There has been a similar spike in support in Greece where, at the June election, hardship and anti-immigrant feeling catapulted Golden Dawn — a more extreme right-wing party often described as neo-Nazi — into an unprecedented 18 seats in the Greek parliament.
Parties pushing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas now have significant parliamentary blocs in eight countries, including Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands, where politician Geert Wilders has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf.
They feed unapologetically on growing resentment that foreigners are taking local jobs and welfare benefits. France’s anti-Muslim Bloc Identitaire serves a pork-based “identity soup” to homeless people; Greece’s Golden Dawn hands out food parcels only to people carrying Greek identity papers.
“As anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor [now],” says Thomas Klau, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
British think tank Demos last year used Facebook to recruit more than 10,000 young supporters of 14 parties and organisations in 11 countries to answer questionnaires. The findings revealed a powerful swell in hardline nationalist sentiment in the young across the continent, particularly among men.
Demos used Facebook’s own advertising tool to extract data about 450,000 supporters of the organisations. Almost two-thirds were aged under 30, and three-quarters were male and more likely than average to be unemployed.
The resentment about outsiders is peculiarly spread. At this meeting of the youth wing of the National Front in Paris, several members are the children or grandchildren of migrants. Karime, 20, is a railway worker whose grandparents emigrated from North Africa. He, too, complains about migrants edging the French out of jobs and welfare but, for him, the main attraction to the party is Marine Le Pen; his face lights up as he talks about what a warm leader she is, and how she truly understands the problems facing the nation.
For Thibault, those problems can be summed up thus: “Past governments have failed to assimilate the incoming flux of immigrants and we are now faced with a tremendous challenge with the third generation of people from North Africa and Africa.
“They have no respect for France’s tradition and culture and seek to impose their own customs and values, which is intolerable. France is probably the most welcoming country in the world — free education and social security — but we cannot welcome all of the world’s misery. For that reason, we need to critically reduce the number of migrants.”
He has come to this view partly because of his mother’s experience teaching, he says: “She is also witnessing this change; numerous children with absent, unemployed fathers, violent and troubled. When you have 70 per cent of the class that isn’t French native and who don’t speak French, how are you supposed to pass on French culture and its heritage?”
He is also sceptical about the European Union and favours protectionism for French products. His sister, Camille, likes the Front’s zero tolerance approach to law and order issues. “There is an increasing sense of insecurity in the big cities,” she adds.
While they feel perfectly comfortable with their views, they are aware that not everyone regards the party in the same light. They chose not to use their surnames for this article in case potential employers should find them on the internet.
Le Pen ranked No. 1 of 10 candidates among young voters in the first presidential ballot earlier this year. She has softened the party’s stance in ways that appeal to a younger electorate.
French political analyst Nonna Meyer of Sciences Po says she has shifted the party away from her father’s image and rhetoric. “She’s younger, she’s a woman, she condemns anti-Semitism . . . She says she is tolerant, it is Islam that is intolerant . . . she up-ends the discourse,” Meyer says.
The opposite is the case with Golden Dawn in Greece, where the rhetoric is increasingly savage. Just before the Greek election in June, MP Ilias Panagiotaros promised that if his party were elected, “It will carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens and it will throw immigrants and children out on the street so that Greeks can take their place.”
Kostis Papaioannou, former chairman of Greece’s National Commission for Human Rights, links Golden Dawn to rising racist violence. “This is not the rise of the extreme right,” he told The Saturday Age. “We have had the extreme right in parliament for a period; they are mainly ultra-conservatives, who pay attention to values like safety and tradition and illegal immigrants. That was as far as they went.
“But Golden Dawn — this is neo-Nazis. They openly use violence and hate speech, deny the Holocaust, and their internal structure is like an army.”
He says the party’s success at a first election in May was followed by a big rise in race attacks, such as one in Piraeus where 25 people entered a house in which Egyptian immigrants were sleeping: three managed to escape but one was badly beaten. “These people were arrested and they were members of this neo-Nazi party,” Papaioannou says.
In the last quarter of 2011, there were 70 such incidents in just two neighbourhoods of Athens. Groups attacked people who were walking or waiting for a bus, or unleashed dogs to terrify them.
“This is organised,” he says. “In many attacks there are juveniles taking part. Golden Dawn is doing very systematic work in recruiting teenagers in high schools in Athens.”
This is not an image of the party that is recognised by many of those who vote for it. Kostas Fasianis, 39, used to own a mini-market in the Athens suburbs before the economy went bad; now he is unemployed. Politically, he describes himself as a nationalist and a Golden Dawn voter. “The core of the party is people like me and you, the common people,” he says. “Its highest value is that we love our country and are patriotic.”
He wants Greece to guard its borders and deport illegal immigrants, who he believes bring diseases into the country and contribute to rising crime: “In Athens it’s become more violent and it’s uncontrollable. People nowadays, they could kill you for five euros.”
Fasianis says it is a lie to say that Golden Dawn activists have ever attacked leftists or immigrants: “There’s no truth at all to that, and it’s proved by the fact that no member of Golden Dawn was ever convicted in court,” he says.
Kostas Papadakis, 35, is the owner of an Athens mini-market and voted for Golden Dawn for the first time in June. He, too, wants a crackdown on illegal immigration, as well as a renegotiation of the sovereign debt repayment deal that is crippling the Greek economy.
“The country has changed dramatically since the first wave of immigrants,” he says. “It started with Albania, and now there are people from Africa and Afghanistan, and large parts of Athens have become ghettoes.”
For Papadakis, Golden Dawn is an alternative to the corruption of the conservatives and socialists whose economic mismanagement has brought the country to its knees. Of its more extreme elements, he says: “Yes, I also believe that there are members in Golden Dawn that act as neo-Nazis. Personally, I have nothing to do with that. I am not a neo-Nazi and not a strong supporter.
“I want Golden Dawn in the parliament to shake up the system. It’s so unjust that 10 million Greeks have to pay and suffer for the money that was embezzled by the 300 members of the Parliament.”
A World Economic Forum report on Global Risks 2012 warned that Europe’s financial crisis, with resulting 50 per cent unemployment in countries such as Spain and Greece, was sowing “the seeds of dystopia”.
Those seeds have begun to sprout.

First published in The Age.

A little privacy, s’il vous plait, for a reluctant first lady

It’s not that she’s shy. In fact, Valerie Trierweiler is known at the magazine Paris Match, where she works as a journalist, for slapping a male colleague who made a sexist remark.
She also managed to win presidential hopeful Francois Hollande away from his partner of 30 years and the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal.
And she lashed out publicly when her own magazine featured her and Mr Hollande on its cover last month. “I am angry to see the use of photos without my agreement and without letting me know,” she posted on Twitter.
She followed up with congratulations to the magazine on having reduced her to a trophy partner “on International Women’s Day … (spare) a thought for all angry women”.
Assertiveness notwithstanding, Ms Trierweiler, 46 and a twice-divorced mother of three, will be a reluctant first lady of France if the voting in the election starting today results, as polls predict, in Mr Hollande becoming president.
She might not in any way fill the ballet slippers of glamorous Carla Bruni, the wife of current President Nicolas Sarkozy (Ms Bruni, a former supermodel, always wears flat shoes because she is 10 centimetres taller than her husband).
While she has sometimes accompanied Mr Hollande to political events, Ms Trierweiler stays in the background. She declines to be interviewed and journalists have been told they are not “campaigning as a couple”. The press does not call her Mr Hollande’s “partner” but his “companion”.
Nor is there any serious talk
of marriage, despite the
historic French preference for married presidents.
Asked during the campaign if he intended to marry her if he won, Mr Hollande said, “You do not get married just for reasons of protocol. You get married out of choice. “I stand alone as a candidate before the French people. Alone. It is not a couple standing but a personality who must convince with his ideas, his method … I will do nothing which is against my principles.”
All of which makes this relationship an interesting milestone in the evolution of French attitudes to the sex lives of politicians.
The French have long tut-tutted over what they saw as adolescent Anglo prurience in the obsession of British tabloids, for example, with the love lives of the rich and famous. Traditionally, French politicians were allowed to keep their peccadilloes off stage as long as they were managed discreetly. Paris Match revealed during his time in office that then president Francois Mitterrand had a mistress and a love child but the rest of the French media ignored the story.
The custom largely protected male indiscretions.
But there has been more publicity over Ms Trierweiler. Mr Hollande’s separation from Ms Royal was announced just after the 2007 election in which Ms Royal, also a senior Socialist, had lost her own bid to be president.
A few months later, a French website published news of his romance with Ms Trierweiler, which had begun when she interviewed him in 2005 in a meeting she later described as “a lightning strike”.
Since then, Mr Sarkozy’s flamboyant love life has grabbed the headlines. In 2008, he married Ms Bruni, 12 years his junior and with a colourful past of her own that included affairs with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, less than four months after divorcing his second wife.
The courtship was public, including kisses at the Great Pyramid of Giza and press conferences in which Mr Sarkozy meditated upon love and destiny, offending traditionalists who criticised it as American-style tabloidisation of French politics.
Ms Bruni, who is also a singer-songwriter, has also discomfited the French with confessional lyrics about falling in love with her husband, and about her indifference to public criticism: “Let them curse me and damn me/I don’t care.”
If anyone has broken the mould of France’s (unofficial) first lady, it is Ms Bruni.
For Ms Treiweiler, the attempts at distance from Mr Hollande’s public life have not been enough to protect her career as a political journalist from problems with conflict of interest. She had to stop attending editorial conferences at Paris Match during the campaign, saying, “They cannot deprive themselves of a subject and I cannot intervene.” She also recently gave up presenting a TV show called Portraits of Candidates for another on celebrities.
If the last Ipsos opinion poll taken before campaigning ended on Friday night is to be believed, Ms Bruni will soon be exiting the Elysee. It found Mr Sarkozy was narrowing the gap but still trailing Mr Hollande, 47.5 per cent to 52.5 per cent. The poll was taken before defeated centrist candidate François Bayrou told voters to back Mr Hollande.
Ms Bruni last year told the BBC that when she stopped being first lady, she would “just go back to touring, you know. Playing guitar and touring is what I miss the most”.
And her husband? “He’s going to work until he dies. He’s that type of man … After taking care of France in the way he did it, I think you can do absolutely any other job.”

First published in The Age.

Sorry still the hardest word for Strauss-Kahn

WHEN Dominique Strauss-Kahn appeared on French television to speak about his sexual encounter with a New York hotel maid, ”sorry” was not what he wanted to say.

The former head of the International Monetary Fund, who has lost both that position and his place as the favourite in next year’s French presidential elections over the scandal, did admit that his part in the encounter was ”a moral failure” he would regret his whole life.

”What happened was not only inappropriate … it was a fault: a fault towards my wife, my children, my friends, but also a fault towards the French people, who placed in me their hope for change.”

But while his scripted words were placatory, his angry, closed face was not. Mr Strauss-Kahn seemed to be talking of a strategic political error rather than expressing personal contrition. For much of his soft-pedal interview on Sunday night – with a TV journalist who is a close friend of his wife’s – Mr Strauss-Kahn seemed to radiate controlled rage. He strongly denied there had been any violence in his exchange with hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, who had accused him in May of forcing her into oral sex after she arrived to clean his hotel room. New York prosecutors dropped the case after finding Ms Diallo, 32, had lied about her life story.

Mr Strauss-Kahn said there had been no sign of injury on either herself or him. ”[She] lied about everything . . it’s in the prosecutor’s report.”

He said the same thing about French writer Tristane Banon, also 30 years his junior, who has claimed he pounced on her like ”a rutting chimpanzee” when she went to interview him in 2003. Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62, has reportedly admitted that he tried to kiss her but said on Sunday that the assault claims were ”imaginary and slanderous”.

The scandal has reverberated. The US justice system was embarrassed when the case fell over because it had paraded a handcuffed Mr Strauss-Kahn in a walk of shame for TV cameras. For Mr Strauss-Kahn, the scandal means he can ”obviously” no longer be a presidential candidate in 2012, he said. Left-wing daily Liberation published a survey in which more than half of voters hoped that Mr Strauss-Kahn, formerly seen as likely to unseat centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, would bow out of the race.

For French Socialists, the scandal has knocked out their best hope. This might boost far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her new-look Front National.

For French society, the scandal has meant a debate over tolerance of the sexual privacy of public figures, and over the question of whether droit du seigneur – the mythic right of a lord to bed women in his fiefdom – lives on in the behaviour of some of its powerful men. For observers of human nature, it has been wry evidence of a related phenomenon: the ageing Lothario’s dogged belief in his own eternal irresistibility.

First published in The Age.