Fascism With An Armani Face

It has become fashionable in recent years to talk of the rise of intolerance in Europe. Jewish groups warn that anti-Semitism has returned to mainstream political discourse, often under the banner of opposition to “Zionism”; meanwhile, the Left prefers to … Read More

By / April 28, 2008

It has become fashionable in recent years to talk of the rise of intolerance in Europe. Jewish groups warn that anti-Semitism has returned to mainstream political discourse, often under the banner of opposition to “Zionism”; meanwhile, the Left prefers to focus on the wave of Islamophobia unleashed by 9/11 and subsequent Islamist terror attacks in Madrid and London. And indeed there is plenty of evidence to back up these fears, if you look for it; antisemitic incidents show a year-on-year increase, Muslim war graves are defiled in French cemeteries, and mosques seem to cower behind ever-higher fences, their windows protected from vandalism by ugly wire grilles.

Meanwhile, across Europe, parties of the far right seem to be doing well in countries like Belgium and France, Austria and Poland. Italy’s Northern League provides the most chilling example; the party that set up uniformed vigilante patrols to “police” immigrant areas in Turin and Piacenza last autumn now finds itself a key player in coalition negotiations following Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in the recent Italian elections. Led by Umberto Bossi (whose idea of a humane immigration policy is to insist that naval vessels coming across boatloads of illegal migrants fire a warning shot before sinking them), La Lega Nord hope to see the post of Deputy PM go to stalwart Roberto Calderoli, who last year suggested a “pig day” to prevent the building of new mosques in Italy, taking swine along to proposed sites to “walk up and down on the land where they want to build, after which it will be considered ‘infected’ and no longer suitable”. Combined with Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance, a “post-fascist” party which draws its support largely from the south of Italy, it would be British understatement to say that Berlusconi’s new government will contain men and women of extremely questionable views.

And yet, as egregious as these instances of intolerance are, they should be put in their proper context. Antisemitic incidents in Britain certainly show a worrying upward trend, but the 547 such incidents recorded in 2007 included 328 instances of “abusive behaviour” as against 114 “assaults,” of which one was categorised as involving “extreme violence.” An additional problem is that the incidence of such attacks tends to be linked to “trigger events” in the Middle East, such as the war in Iraq or the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, and often seem to be carried out not just by neo-Nazi skinheads but also by Muslims. This scarcely makes them less serious, but it does mean that mainstream politicians have an interest in downplaying the gravity of antisemitic incidents for fear of seeming Islamophobic. Many European Jews feel marginalised and fearful as a result.

On the political front, the most recognisable far-right leader in Europe, Jean-Marie Le Pen, embarrassed France by making the Presidential run-off against Jacques Chirac in 2002, but his Front National has collapsed as an electoral force, as did Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria after their brief spell in the limelight at the turn of the century. In summary, there is plenty of intolerance to be found, in Europe as everywhere else, but it is perhaps an exaggeration to say that it is on the march.

The relative electoral success of fringe parties can certainly be attributed in large part
to fears about immigration, particularly Muslim immigration from Turkey and North Africa, and justifiable fears about terrorism combine with distrust of a political elite that seems to ignore the concerns of “ordinary” voters — and a helping of good old-fashioned racism — to tempt many into the arms of extremists. But just as crucial, the electoral systems in many European countries tend to give fringe parties a key role as kingmakers in unwieldy coalition governments. The publicity this attracts is often wildly disproportionate to their actual influence; a party that gains 5 or 6 percent of the vote can, thanks to proportional representation, find itself hogging the cameras for weeks after an election. In some cases, mainstream political parties agree that they will not go into coalition with extremists come what may; the Flemish Vlaams Belang, for example, is the object of a self-denying ordnance among other parties called the Cordon Sanitaire, and the governing Fianna Fail party in Ireland resolutely refuse to contemplate coalition with Sinn Fein — for the time being at least. Many others, such as Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, are not so discerning.

Furthermore, fascists (however defined) are just smarter than they used to be. Far-right leaders in Europe these days sport sharp suits and college degrees; the Holocaust deniers, lunatics and skinheads haven’t gone away, of course, but by and large they’ve been relegated to the shadows. Incendiary rhetoric tends to be the exception rather than the rule; soothing bromides about preserving the British/French/Italian “way of life” sit cheek-by-jowl with the sort of motherhood-and-apple-pie inanities common to all political manifestoes. This smooth evolution has seen parties like the British BNP softpedal their historical antisemitism in favour of an aggressive anti-Islamic message; indeed, and with admirable chutzpah, they are currently courting London’s Jewish vote in the run-up to local and mayoral elections on Thursday. (They’re unlikely to get very far with such tactics; memories of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and the Battle of Cable Street run deep.)

When the far right swaps the goosestep for the soft sell, many would argue, the need for vigilance is only redoubled; and I wouldn’t disagree. But the evidence tends to show that so-called electoral breakthroughs by “post-fascist” parties are usually one-off events, triggered by dissatisfaction with “politics as usual”, and rarely sustained. The situation varies from country to country, but so long as governments address their citizens’ concerns rather than merely paying lip service to them, there is unlikely to be a concerted shift in support towards these groups. Extremists in Europe are not so much resurgent as merely repackaged.

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