By Jane West
Sarkozy’s introduction of the legal ban on wearing the full face veil in France is an indication of the degree to which right-wing governments across Europe are prepared to try to deflect anger at attacks on working class living standards onto innocent scapegoats – in this case approximately 2000 Muslim women in France, less than 0.2% of the population, who wear a Burqa or Niqab.
As the cuts and austerity policies of governments across Europe begin to bite the political parties implementing these policies are plummeting down in the opinion polls. In the recent local elections in France, Sarkozy’s UMP polled 35.9% compared to the Socialist Party’s (SP) 49.9 %. In the first round the UMP only polled 19%, while the far right FN led by Marine Le Pen won 15% of the vote and topped the poll in parts of Nice, Marseille and the Côte d’Azur. 400 of its candidates went through to the second-round of the elections, mainly into run-offs with the SP. In this situation in the past the UMP has called for a vote for the SP rather than support the FN in an unofficial ‘republican bloc’ against the neo-fascists. But on this occasion the Party leadership refused to issue such a call, although some ministers broke ranks and did call for a vote for the left.
Tensions in the UMP over concessions to the far right were exacerbated in the run up to the veil ban coming into force, with Sarkozy’s insistence in holding a national conference on the ‘place of Islam in French society’ alleging that France’s 5 million Muslims were a threat to the French way of life. UMP Prime Minister Francois Fillon refused to attend the conference on the basis its discussions on Halal restaurants and Muslim prayer in French streets would whip up Islamophobia. The conference was condemned by leaders of France’s Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox Christian and Buddhist faiths which issued a joint statement saying it could fuel racial prejudice and stigmatize Muslims. These steps by Sarkozy against Muslims come after his government had met condemnation across Europe for its forced mass deportations of Roma people from France during the summer of 2010.
At the same time France has become particularly belligerent internationally, with Sarkozy leading the campaign for NATO bombing of Libya and using French presence under the flag of the UN in the Ivory Coast to militarily force Gbagbo out of power. While these military adventures are closely linked to France’s core international interests – the discovery of oil off the Ivory Coast and the Libyan oilfields being the obvious common feature – they also aim to whip up chauvinism to shore up his ailing electoral position.
This pattern of concessions to the far right and chauvinism by mainstream parties – seen so graphically in France – are a trend across Europe. Angela Merkel responded to her falling poll ratings with a speech declaring multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed’ in Germany and saying immigrants had to learn to speak German. As reported elsewhere on this web-site; as the Tories started to fall behind Labour in the polls, Cameron chose the weekend when the EDL was marching in Luton to make a speech condemning multiculturalism and attacking Britain’s Muslim communities for failing to integrate.
These attempts to play the race card are not rescuing these parties from their electoral unpopularity and are instead playing into a rise in support for extreme right parties across Europe. An early March poll in France suggested that Marine Le Pen’s likely support in next year’s Presidential election was ahead of Sarkozy, with the FN leader on 23% against 21% for Sarkozy.
The most successful far right party to date is the 27% for the Freedom Party in Austria. But the Swedish General Election also saw the far right enter Parliament for the first time with 20 seats due to the 5% voting for the Sweden Democrats in September 2010 (and polls show their support rising since the election while the governing parties’ support is falling back).
Geert Wilders’ PVV in Holland has made significant gains, propping up Rutte’s Liberal-led coalition government since its Parliamentary success last year and entering the Senate for the first time with 12% of the vote in March’s regional elections. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party two MPs have been decisive for the Danish government’s ability to get legislation through. And there are many other examples.
In Britain the early period of the Cameron government has been marked by a crisis and splits in the BNP – which are likely to dampen any chances of it making a strong showing in the 5th May elections. But this has accompanied by the rise of a street-fighting neo-fascist force in the EDL, which has not only mobilised to directly attack Muslim communities but has turned to targeting the left, particularly the anti-fascist and anti-racist left. Unite Against Fascism meetings have been physically attacked in a number of towns and cities, most recently in Brighton. A joint One Societies Many Cultures/UAF protest against the French veil ban – mainly attended by young Muslim women – was assaulted by about 30 violent members of the EDL.
Every concession to the agenda of the racists and Islamophobes simply feeds support for the far right, whether electorally or on the streets. Standing up to this growing racist wave will become an increasing priority. The impact of austerity policies on their poll ratings will increasingly lead mainstream politicians to seek to deflect this anger onto Muslims, immigrants, asylum seekers, black communities and others. And in the absence of clear political and economic alternatives this will create some echo among those who feel increasingly desperate as living standards fall under the twin blows of declining wages and welfare cuts. Only arguing for the benefits of a multicultural, diverse society and laying the blame for the cuts on the real culprits – the bankers, capitalists and right-wing governments – can begin to defeat this assault.