- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

STOCKHOLM — You see the mote in your neighbor's eye, the Bible says, but not the beam in your own. Motes and beams are brought to mind by the stunned shock and horror that beset Europe last week, following the election results in France. How could the far-right come to such prominence again, Europeans were asking themselves. Surely racism is an evil that besets others Americans and Israelis, for instance, possibly even benighted people from the Balkans but enlightened modern-day Europeans?
Frankly, this would be a good time for some people to climb down from their high horses and do a little soul-searching. Yet, viewing the events in France from the vantage point of the conference on racism in Stockholm April 23-24, "Truth, Justice and Reconciliation," you have to wonder.
Uniquely well-timed as the conference was, it barely touched on the problems growing on the European continent. From Rwanda to Cambodia to South Africa to Bosnia to Polish-German reconciliation after World War II, the focus of this well-intentioned exercise was firmly elsewhere, or at least firmly in the past. Granted Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson made a brief general comment in his opening remarks that "recent events in Europe show the importance of this." With the recent shocking instances of the burning of synagogues in France and inflamed tempers over immigration levels in a number of European countries, there would have been much material to be gathered from the here and now.
The immediate question should have been whether Europe can be reconciled to the levels of immigrants living in its midst France itself now has 4 million to 5 million Muslims enticed there by earlier times' generous immigration and asylum laws, welfare provisions and promises of low-skilled jobs. Signs are not promising, one would have to say. Paradoxically, however, the greater the level of support for xenophobic European political parties, the greater also the fury sparked by the Middle East crisis and charges of racism and human rights abuses leveled at Israel. It is as though taking up the cause of Palestinians serves for Europeans to establish a set of humanitarian credentials. For some, of course, it may simply mask a latent anti-Semitism.
The political event that sparked these thoughts is the French presidential election. After years in the disreputable shadows of French politics, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, came in second in the first round of the French presidential election. He knocked Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of contention, causing the latter's mortified resignation from politics altogether. Mr. Le Pen now stands as the sole challenger to President Jacques Chirac, which leaves at least the theoretical possibility, however remote, that Mr. Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-foreigner platform could triumph on May 5.
Rationalizations and excuses abound. The French left was split. The voters stayed home, dissatisfied with their choices. Mr. Le Pen's showing of almost 17 percent was barely higher than his share in the previous presidential election in 1995. "There is no cause for panic," editorialized the Economist. "His success owed more to the mainstream candidates' dismal failure and, above all, to the crazy fragmentation of the left which cast more than a quarter of the entire vote for candidates plainly or arguably to the left of the Socialists' Lionel Jospin than to a surge of enthusiasm for France's neo-fascist right."
And yet, Mr. Le Pen came away with a majority in more than one-third of France's departments, particularly along the southern and western borders of the country, areas heavily populated by immigrants, and in the industrial "iron-belt" around Paris. A singularly unattractive figure, Mr. Le Pen seems to dislike Muslims and Jews alike, an all-purpose xenophobe.
The Le Pen phenomenon, unfortunately, is not isolated. Austria got spanked by the European Union for forming a government that included far-right nationalist Joerg Haider's party. (The spanking, ironically, was led by France.) In Denmark, the equally xenophobic Danish People's Party received 12 percent in last fall's elections. Even Sweden in the early 1990s saw the rise of a Nazi-style party in southern Sweden, which has since withered. Local elections in the Netherlands and Belgium have given victories to far-right politicians. And in Hamburg, they are now part of the city government.
On one level, the reason is undoubtedly the transformation that has taken place as homogeneous populations in traditionally non-immigrant societies have faced massive changes in recent decades. In the French election, crime was the topic Number One, understandably so as the country now can boast crime rates exceeding those in the United States. Other factors may be resistance to globalization and European integration, producing a mixture of nostalgia and insecurity.
Whatever the causes, Europe's political elites are obviously at fault for not having taken the warning signs of spreading malcontent seriously. It is time Europeans had an honest discussion about how much diversity their societies can bear, and, as well, how to contain and channel the backlash.

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