Europe Tilts Rightward

Fear Elects Scapegoaters

Le Pen burned in effigy on the streets of Paris
Protesters in Paris burn an effigy of French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, May 1, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s unexpectedly strong showing in France’s recent presidential elections was but the latest variation on a Europe-wide theme. Extreme right-wing movements are gaining ground, fed by a backlash against the specter of social change and the loss of national sovereignty within the European Union.

A specter is haunting Europe. In Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and now in France as well, xenophobic, right-wing populist parties and Pied Pipers are increasingly popular among voters. The phenomenon is too big to be overlooked, which makes it all the more necessary to find its causes. Drawing analogies with the fascist movements of the 1920s and ’30s is a mistake, however. None of the crisis conditions of that era, which prepared the ground for the black- and brownshirts, exist today.

And the atmosphere of today’s Europe is different: Back then, the fervid, revanchist nationalism of the losers traded blows with the victory-happy nationalism of the winners. Today’s right-wing populism lacks something fundamental compared to its apparently closely related fascist counterparts: It cannot claim to be righting old wrongs, no matter where it blossoms. In other words, it lacks a concrete enemy, especially one grounded in history, and instead must rely on diffuse resentments, which can be put into the general category of hostility to immigrants and foreigners.

One of the central characteristics of those people is their need to fight against an invisible threat that they cannot name. It is a way of getting relief when you kick the dog but mean the master. Seen in this light, the growth of right-wing populist parties could be explained as a diffuse protest by voters who express their unease in terms of culture.
This uneasiness is deeply rooted in the experience of belonging to the growing number of those deprived of the right to make decisions by having been cheated out of shaping their own existence. They have a feeling of being exposed helplessly to powers and developments that, although they are resplendent with glowing promise, are ultimately meaningless. The difference between expectations and experience thus becomes a threat, one that is all the more frightening to individuals because, no matter how carefully they may plan their lives, they cannot be sure of their futures. This threat is the unknown, the apocalyptic results of globalization.

What is not understood in this connection is that European prosperity, the success of the European Union, is to a very significant degree the result of economic and financial globalization, meaning the fact that goods and capital may, to a great extent, flow unhindered.

But this has also meant that beloved certainties have been destroyed, the deck has been reshuffled, and there are new winners and losers. This is precisely what upsets people, what leads to fear and defensiveness, to seeking scapegoats. The traditional favorites are the foreigners, outsiders, immigrants—the people we brought in to do the dirty jobs, but do not want to keep, much less integrate or let enjoy any of our own prosperity.

The realization that more and more people are swimming in the stream of goods and money now circling the globe, and that they are demanding the same free movement as given to goods and capital, is at the heart of the fears behind the rise of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe.

The ones responsible for this development, however, are not so much the voters as those politicians who offer political patent medicines while promising to cure all the things society fears. They are despicable simply because they make believe that they are more stupid than those they are trying to fool.

Those kinds of politicians who with false modesty proclaim themselves to be simply managers of “State Inc.” are sinning against the mandate given them by their voters and are confusing the electorate with small shareholders, who have to be kept happy at almost any price. They are lacking vision and thus turn to crisis management instead. But all they do is use public money to stave off bankruptcy by “rescuing” a few thousand jobs for a limited time.

Policies that simply make do with mastering newly breaking crises of individual companies and whole industries with applicable mid-level managerial methods will fail to master the tasks and challenges that will face politicians in connection with the eastern expansion of the European Union and with EU integration.

Just what consequences that may have have become evident in the first round of the recent French presidential elections.

It is, however, a safe bet to say that no one will be learning anything from it.