The rise of the Right

Sundaram from Amsterdam

THE LOONY right-wing is back in Europe and with a bang. In quick succession electoral results in two important European countries – France and Holland – have revealed a resurgence of extreme right-wing forces challenging the tall claims of the continent’s social-democratic parties that they have found the ‘Third Way’ between capitalism and socialism. In France, the right-wing populist Le Pen of the National Front shocked the country’s political establishment by beating the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin to second place in the first round of presidential elections. Though Le Pen was easily trounced by incumbent president Jacques Chirac of the centre-right in the final round it was clear that something was rotten in the Republic of France.

In the Netherlands, after eight years in power the Dutch Labour Party of Prime Minister Wim Kok got thrashed by centre-right and extreme right parties. The anti-immigrant List Pim Fortuyn (LFP) formed just three months before the elections on May 15 picked up 26 seats in the 150-member lower house of parliament to become the second largest party behind the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA with 43 seats). In an indication of the political tensions in the country the controversial LFP leader Pim Fortuyn was murdered just days before the elections by an animal rights activist from the Green movement.

While, despite these electoral triumphs, it would not be factually correct to exaggerate the political strength of the extreme right in both France and Holland their victories coming on the heels of similar performances in recent years in Austria, Italy and Portugal is an indication of a rising political trend in Europe. And the trend is basically that of a deep discontent emerging among sections of the people, many of them from working class background, over deteriorating social and economic conditions and the betrayal by social democratic parties who have en masse adopted the neo-liberal paradigm of privatisation, rollback of the social welfare state and blind allegiance to US imperialism.

In France, the government of Jospin, who was the Prime Minister for the past few years before trying to become the President, was indistinguishable in its policies from any rightwing pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist government. Despite his socialist rhetoric and appeal to working class voters the Jospin regime took responsibility for imposing all the sacrifices in jobs and social programmes required as a condition for the establishment of the European monetary system and the launching of the single currency, the euro. Further on the political front, Jospin supported French imperialism in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and most recently Afghanistan.

In the Netherlands, the outgoing government of Wim Kok was dubbed the ‘Dutch delight’ by the conservative Economist magazine for its assiduous pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies. Under its pro-business and anti-labour policy thrust the Dutch Labour Party has shed its earlier promises of promoting full employment and the country has witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of people doing part-time jobs, often less than 12 hours a week, and very poorly paid.

According to independent studies, since 1970, part-time jobs in the Dutch economy have increased to a record for countries monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This trend has accelerated over the past decade. By 1988 there were 1,886,000 part-time employed people (31.4 per cent of all people in employment) in 1997 their number had risen to 2,656,000.

By 1997, fully a million households – in a total population of some 16 million – were below the poverty line. Of these, 40 percent had been in poverty since 1992. Social spending plummeted from 66 percent of gross domestic product in 1985 to around 50 percent today. Poverty has grown in suburbs of big cities such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Hague. Increasingly, the burden for sustaining social programs has been transferred to local authorities, which have responded by cutting spending on such services.

The roots of the current political and economic situation in Europe go back to the late eighties when the collapse of the Soviet Union and east European socialist regimes prompted a rightward shift across the political spectrum. The European right wing then declared ‘victory’ over socialism, social democrats like Tony Blair, Gerard Schroeder and Lionel Jospin swore allegiance to ‘market principles’ and several ‘embarrassed’ communist parties renamed themselves as social democrats!

One result of the rightward shift was an attack on the social-welfare state, which had been forged as a compromise between capital and labour after the Second World War, throughout Europe. Social democrat governments quickly abandoned any pretences they had of representing working class interests and hastened to carry on the neo-liberal economic policies, kicked off earlier by Thatcher-Reagan governments in the UK and US.

With growing unemployment, increasing economic insecurity and the loss of credibility of whatever was left of the ‘Left,’ many of those affected by the new policies have naturally fallen prey to rising right-wing demagogues like Le Pen and Pim Fortuyn. While the election results in both France and the Netherlands is being described as a ‘surprise’ and a ‘shock’ by the western media the truth is that the path to rightwing fanaticism was clearly predictable throughout the nineties.

One easy target of attack for the rightwing in Europe has been the immigrant population in the continent who are being blamed for taking away jobs from locals, indulging in crime and in the aftermath of September 11 of even being potential ‘terrorists’. The growing xenophobia comes ironically at a time when all demographic trends in Europe show that it needs more and more immigrants to keep its economies running.

According to European Commission estimates the EU working population will start to fall in the next 10 years and decline to 223m people by 2025 from 225m in 1995. During the same period, the number of over-65s will continue to rise to reach 22 per cent of the population by 2025 from 15 per cent in 1995. The problems of an ageing population, with not enough workers to pay for retired people’s pensions, have led some EU leaders to consider relaxing immigration rules.

However, in the current atmosphere of ‘dog-eat-dog’ market-friendly economic policies many Europeans see immigrants as a threat to their jobs, security and culture. The absence of strong working class movements with an internationalist perspective has pitted sections of the poor and working class in Europe against African and Asian migrants and given rise to a dangerous racism that if unchecked could lead to severe tensions in the days ahead.

For the developing countries the current trends in Europe should be a signal to challenge the growing rightwing mood and call for a dismantling of national barriers to immigration in the developed countries. The West has been pushing for open access to developing country markets in the name of ‘free trade’ but till now strongly resisted attempts to ‘liberalise’ the movement of labour.

Apart from being the only way to break narrow nationalist and racist movements the right to free migration should be seen by developing countries as their historic due for more than four centuries of colonial rule by European countries and as a means of redistributing global resources. After all, when the British, French or Spaniards took over large parts of the world they were not only ‘illegal immigrants’ at that time but indulging in open loot and even genocide. All that today’s immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America to Europe are asking for is decent chance to earn back resources stolen from their ancestors.