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]’
BY KAREN KISSANE IN PARIS, ATHENS
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.