Foreigner-phobia drives Europe’s ‘new-look’ far-right
France's Marine Le Pen, aged 42 and expected to take the helm of her notorious father's National Front this weekend, recently likened street prayers by Muslims to the World War II occupation of France by the Nazis.
In liberal Netherlands, where populists last year became the country’s third biggest party, 47-year-old leader Geert Wilders compares the Koran to Hitler’s "Mein Kampf".
"The new-look far-right is more than just a protest movement," said Magali Balent of the Robert Schuman Foundation.
"It’s developed an ethnically-based discourse about European identity that’s in phase with social problems."
Hungary, Budapest : Clad in WWII Hungarian uniform, two protestors walk ahead of Hungarian activists of the neo-Nazi NS Front group marching with their banner of ‘Heroes of Europe’ in Budapest
Far-right parties currently are in government in Italy and backing minority cabinets in Denmark and the Netherlands. They also sit in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden.
At 31, Sweden’s Jimmie Aakesson five years ago took the once obscure and neo-Nazi-smudged Sweden Democrats out of nowhere to make a maiden entry into parliament last year with a 20-seat windfall.
"Today we are different and voters see that," he told AFP at the time.
In Austria, where populists slumped after the death of controversial Georg Haider, 41-year-old Heinz-Christian Strache has propelled them back to the fore — taking second slot in a 2010 Vienna town hall vote after a "West for the Christians" campaign.
Moving to the beat in a campaign video, Strache raps against the EU and the Muslims, far-right vote-winning themes across Europe — bar in Hungary where Gypsy Romas are the target.
Strache picked up 27 percent of the Vienna vote and polls show Le Pen could pick up 17 percent in France’s 2012 presidential elections.
Contrary to common belief, analysts say far-right victories and the anti-immigration, Islamophobic and Euro-sceptic ideas pedalled by the populists cannot be attributed to the global crisis or economic hardships.
"The anti-Islamic discourse found fertile ground in the aftermath of the Cold War era of the early 90s, and was reinforced by 9/11 and subsequent attacks in London and Madrid," said Balent.
But most of the far-right parties took root in the 70s and 80s, times of relative prosperity before unemployment bit into Europe, said Matthew Goodwin of London’s Chatham House think-tank.
"There is a high level of anxiety in our societies that touches not just on immigration itself but on a perceived incompatibility of foreigners, and specially Muslims, with Western values," he said.
"The far-right has cottoned onto this."
Softening their image, the new-generation of far-right young lions have distanced themselves from the fascist-style language of Marine’s 82-year-old father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, avoiding its crude racism and anti-Semitism.
"The emphasis now is on ways of life, culture, and national values," Goodwin said. "A sense that immigration, that minorities, are not just a threat to our jobs and social housing, but to our European identity and our values."
Surveys show the average far-right supporter to be very much an average European, though often less educated.
Continued gains by the populists, according to analysts, is partly due to the failure of mainstream parties to clearly confront concerns over immigration and Islam, instead of sidestepping the issues or offering pale copies of populist policy.
"The European Union’s hesitation over Turkey’s membership opens up an avenue for the far-right, for instance," said Balent. "The EU needs to say what it is and what isn’t, define its borders, spell out its identity."
In France, Le Pen’s Front has forced the mainstream right to compete with it on immigration and law-and-order issues.
Since his 2007 election, President Nicolas Sarkozy has pushed a hard line on crime and immigrants in what is seen as a strategy to stop losing votes to the far-right in the upcoming 2012 presidential poll.
"The far-right isn’t going to take national power across Europe," Goodwin said. "But they will remain on the European political landscape."
AFP/ Claire Rosemberg/ Expatica