Arrest of IMF chief gives boost to Europe’s far-right
A prominent French politician faces trial for sex crimes. The scandal could deliver a major European nation to anti-immigration extremists.
The political world is in shock. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of France's highest profile public figures, has been arrested in New York, on charges of sexual assault, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. He faces a possible 20-year prison term.
Strauss-Kahn is the head of the IMF, an international body which oversees the world's financial system. As the organisation's managing director, he has played a key role in fighting Europe's current debt crisis.
In France, meanwhile, the loss of Strauss-Kahn is a devastating blow to the ambitions of the Socialist Party, which was expected to choose him as its candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections.
As accusations fly, Strauss-Kahn's chance at the presidency has vanished. And he leaves a vacuum in French politics – there is no centre-left candidate who can hope to match the disgraced politician's heavyweight credentials. In fact, the real winner from Strauss-Kahn's sudden fall may be the controversial Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (the FN).
Le Pen is one of a generation of right wing, nationalist European politicians who are making dramatic gains by playing on growing anti-immigrant feeling.
In Finland, the True Finns party won an extraordinary 19% of votes in elections last month. In Denmark, the nationalist DPP recently forced the government to reintroduce border controls to catch illegal immigrants.
Even in Sweden, traditionally a stronghold of left wing values, the far-right Sweden Democrats have had a surge in support.
There are regional variations. In the Netherlands, for example, the flamboyant Geert Wilders presents his xenophobic politics as a defence of liberal Dutch values like tolerance and free speech.
But underneath, the political message remains the same. With employment and incomes falling, far-right politicians play on the fears of voters. Many EU countries have large communities of Muslim immigrants. It's easy to demonise them, claiming they are a threat to the native way of life, and a drain on struggling economies.
With President Sarkozy under fire, and the Socialist left in disarray, analysts are warning that Le Pen may become a serious challenger for the French presidency. If she won, it would deliver one of Europe's most populous and powerful nations into the hands of the extreme right wing.
Thriving on fear
Mainstream politicians are unsure how to cope with this growing threat. Nationalist leaders can be ignored, marginalised, or attacked as 'racists', but they often thrive on outsider status.
And when times are tough, fear wins votes. To fight back, struggling mainstream parties need to get better at providing hope.
- What explains the appeal of the far right?
- The far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was refused entry to the UK in 2009. It was feared that he would 'incite racial hatred'. Should we ban extremist politicians like Wilders, or debate against them?
- Design a political poster warning voters of the dangers of extremism. You could use a real life extremist party from any country as an example.
- The BNP, a British far-right party, has so far done comparatively badly in UK elections. Write a short opinion piece for a newspaper explaining why right wing extremism seems to have less appeal in the UK than in France.
Some People Say...
“Extremist political parties should be made illegal.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What does 'far-right' mean exactly?
- It's a slightly old-fashioned term, and can be misleading. In social issues it generally means being ultra-conservative, opposing gay rights and abortion, and opposing immigration. Far-right parties are openly nationalistic, and say they put the needs of their own citizens above the needs of foreigners. Of course, the definition of 'foreigner' can stretch a long way.
- Where do they stand on the economy?
- That's where it gets complicated. Many 'far-right' parties in Europe actually have quite left wing economic policies. That means restricting international trade, hardening borders and encouraging strong central government.
- What do they think of the EU?
- They're anti. The EU brings nations closer together. They want to split them apart.