Swiss vote boosts anti-immigrant populism in Europe

Swiss vote boosts anti-immigrant populism in Europe

7th December 2009, Comments 0 comments

Europe's anti-immigrant party leaders hailed a decision by Swiss voters to ban building minarets and called for similar referendums to be held in other countries.

Paris -- Europe's anti-immigrant party leaders hailed a decision by Swiss voters to ban Muslims from building minarets last Monday and called for similar referendums to be held in other countries.

Immediately after the 29 November Swiss referendum, right-wing parties in Belgium and the Netherlands moved to demand bans on new minarets, while politicians elsewhere used the vote to attack mainstream political opinion.

In doing so, they sought to embarrass more cautious European governments which are trying to manage anti-immigrant sentiment while seeking ways to better integrate their growing Muslim minority populations.

In France, the deputy leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, praised Swiss voters for massively rejecting what she said had been pressure from a mainstream political "elite" to oppose the ban.

AFP PHOTO JOHN THYS "The elites should stop denying the hopes and fears of European peoples who, without opposing religious freedom, reject ostentatious symbols forced on them by politico-religious Muslim groups, often verging on provocation," she said.

Le Pen said France should hold a broader referendum on multiculturalism, allowing a vote on Islamic menus in school canteens, Muslim prayers in public spaces, days off on Islamic holidays and public funding for mosques.

In Belgium, the right-wing Vlaams Belang said it would submit a decree to the Flemish regional parliament that would allow authorities to ban buildings that would "damage their surroundings' existing cultural identity."

The head of the Freedom Party of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, called on his government to allow a similar referendum to ban minaret-building there.

"Congratulations to Switzerland on the magnificent result of the minarets referendum! What can be done in Switzerland, can be done here," he declared.

Dutch referendums are rare and non-binding and Wilders' party has only nine out of 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, but he and other right-wing leaders across Europe are attempting to capitalise on the Swiss vote.

In Italy, the triumphant mood spread to anti-immigrant members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing ruling coalition.

"Switzerland is sending us a clear signal: yes to bell towers, no to minarets," said Roberto Calderoli, minister of administrative simplification, and a member of the Northern League, part of Italy's ruling coalition.

"A very democratic Switzerland gave us a message today," said Riccardo De Corato, deputy mayor of Milan and a member of Berlusconi's own People of Freedom party.

The Swiss result was an unwelcome surprise for President Nicolas Sarkozy's government in France, which has launched a nationwide debate on national identity while fending off an electoral challenge from Le Pen's front.

Reactions from Sarkozy's supporters varied widely, reflecting uncertainty over how to deal with such a hot-button issue in a country that has a strong secular tradition but is also home to Europe's biggest Muslim population.

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Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who was plucked from the ranks of the Socialist Party to serve in Sarkozy's right-wing government, said he was "shocked" by the Swiss referendum.

"It is an expression of intolerance and I detest intolerance," he declared, while fellow Socialist transplant Immigration Minister Eric Besson expressed his hope that minarets would not become an issue in France.

But a spokesman for Sarkozy's right-wing ruling UMP was not so quick to write off the Swiss result, admitting it would spark discussion in France.

"Prayer rooms are indispensable, but for all that do we need minarets above these prayer rooms? I'm not sure about that," said Dominique Paille.

"Obviously, there are bell towers above churches, but that's a historic legacy," he said, drawing a distinction between the "religions that were here before the creation of the republic and those that came afterwards."

AFP / Dave Clark / Expatica

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