Europe's far right - don't let the far right in by the back door

From the tip of Scandinavia to the sun kissed shores of the Mediterranean, far-right leaders and parties are doing well (and in some cases very well) in opinion polls. Given Europe's history, this has set my nerves a-jangling. The biggest shock is the rise of Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front. Polls put her ahead of both President Nicolas Sarkozy and any likely socialst challenger in 2012. She will not win the presidency, but she has shed the jackbooted image of her father, Jean-Marie, who utterley shamed France by gettinginto the run off against President Jacques Chrac in 2002.

The right is on the rise for old reasons and new. Hostility to immigration is sharpened by Islammist terrorism; alienation form the ploitical system is exacerbated by both globalisation and the bail outs of failing euro-zone countries. Ms Le Pen and her kind trade on an anti-Islamist sentiment to resist not just more immigration from north Africa but also Islamification at home. In northern Europe far-right parties play on the anti Brussells sentiment and the Euro to gain ground. The German government is worried by the very possible emergence of a nationalist party pushing to restore the deutsche mark.

Europe's political establishment has tried many different tactics to neutralise the far-right threat, none of which has been wholly succesful. The first was to ignore it in the hope it would just 'go away'. Next came the policies of ostracising extremists' throwing a cordon sanitaire around parties that won municipal or parlimentary seats. Then came it's opposite: embrace the far right and even bringing it into Goverment, in the hope that contact with reality would both moderate and reduce it's appeal.

President Sarkozy tried yet another approach in the run-up to the 2007 election: he occupied the National Front's ground by ranting about immigrants and using codified anti-Islamist rhetoric and discourse. A charitable interpretaion is that by broadening the respectable right, he left less space for the extremists. Whatever the intent his strategy did have some success in winning back voters, but this is a very dangerous path to follow. By espousing the arguments of the far-right, the centre may end up legitimising them; and voters may opt not for the ersatz party but the real thing, especially in a more respectable guise - Ms Le Pen, for instance.

In my opinion mainstream parties would do better to address the extremists head on. Instead of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, by claiming, as Germany's interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich has, that Islam has no place in a country like Germany. Instead of demonising the Greeks, spell out the arguments for keeping the Euro together. Instead of hinting that Governments can keep Globalistion at bay, explain its benefits and the costs of resiting it. That may sound Panglossian, but it's better than raising voters expectations only to dash them later. That's what President Sarkozy did in 2008 when he pledged to keep a steel plant from shifting production abroad. The jobs went anyway. Little wonder if voters flock to parties that seem to offer a more robust bulwark against painful change.

Dealing with extremists is never easy for moderates, but addressing voters concerns honestly, and making the argument against the far right stoutly, is in my mind the best approach. Those who steal extremists' clothes very often end up looking far to like them.
reproduced in full from the economist