Where are Le Pen friends now?
The spectre of fascism is not haunting Europe, reports Dominic Standish from Italy.
Following the first-round electoral success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, the European media have reported the rise of extremist right-wing politics across the continent.
‘Far rightists gain support across much of Europe’ ran the headline in the International Herald Tribune, above an article examining how centre-left governments and coalitions have lost power in Italy, Norway, Denmark and Portugal (1). The Financial Times online has a map of Europe showing a sea of rightist parties taking control (2). In Italy, it highlights the inclusion of the ‘far-right’ Northern League (LN) and post-fascist National Alliance (AN) in the government coalition of Silvio Berlusconi.
‘In the past two years right-of-centre parties have gained control of Italy, Austria, Denmark and Portugal’, explains the Sunday Times (London). ‘In most cases this success has come thanks to alliances with radical rightwingers such as Jörg Haider in Austria, Umberto Bossi of the virulently anti-foreigner Northern League in Italy, and Pia Kjaersgaard, a Danish maverick populist.’ (3)
On 22 April 2002, following the success of French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential elections, Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi claimed that Le Pen’s success followed the rightward trend in Europe established by his own coalition’s election victory last year.
Yet one day later, Berlusconi had changed his tune. As is his custom, he had misjudged the new etiquette of cultural diversity in Europe, which makes it unacceptable to celebrate any anti-immigrant or pro-Western politics in public (4). On 23 April, Berlusconi explained how the continent had moved to the left over the past decade, but had now ‘returned to the centre’. He sheepishly added, ‘I am not even saying that it’s shifting toward the centre-right’ (5).
Like other political leaders associated with the right, including France’s Jacques Chirac, Berlusconi has realised the benefits of defining himself against Le Pen, and the politics of the National Front. By contrasting himself to Le Pen, Berlusconi can present himself, and his politics, as moderate.
Berlusconi modified his interpretation of Le Pen’s achievements when he realised that his own coalition partners with their right-wing reputations would come under the spotlight. His government includes the leader of the AN, Gianfranco Fini, as deputy prime minister, and the leader of the LN, Umberto Bossi, as the reforms minister. Berlusconi has finally realised that it is unfashionable to be associated with the right in contemporary Europe. Recently, he even said that his Forza Italia (FI) party is on the left. He appears to recognise that, against a concern about ‘far right’ parties in Italy, it benefits his own party to seem as much on the centre as possible.
James Walston, a political science professor at the American University in Rome, responded to Le Pen’s success by suggesting, ‘Now France has an image problem which for the moment will move the spotlight off Italy’ (6). While France is undoubtedly the current centre of European attention, the French election has placed Italy’s right wing under scrutiny once more.
On 23 April, Berlusconi was forced to defend the LN as ‘neither racist nor xenophobic’, adding that in the European Union ‘no one has talked about the League for two or three months’ (7). Berlusconi’s defence of the LN was in response to a report published on 22 April, the day after Le Pen’s electoral success, by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). The report condemned the racist parties in Italy’s government: ‘ECRI is alarmed by the participation in the governing coalition of political parties whose members have resorted to xenophobic and intolerant propaganda.’ The report singles out the Northern League, stating that its members ‘have made a particularly intense use of racist and xenophobic propaganda’.
There can be no denying that both the AN and LN have been linked to anti-immigrant politics in the past. The LN’s Umberto Bossi has been especially outspoken, and during the 2001 general election campaign he proposed the building of a wall along Italy’s border with Slovenia to keep out immigrants from the east. ‘I am fed up with these crocodile tears over immigrants’, Bossi said in response to the arrival of 1000 Kurdish immigrants in Sicily in March. ‘It is time for action. If I had my way, we would sink these smugglers’ ships, blow them out of the water, not just confiscate them.’ (8)
But even the rather crude Bossi has now distanced himself from Le Pen: ‘Le Pen is the wrong answer to the right questions,’ said Bossi, in an interview with the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera on 24 April. Bossi continued by describing Le Pen as a ‘fascist’ and is attempting to rewrite his past statements on immigration: ‘Le Pen wants to throw immigrants into the sea, while we want a clear law on immigration’, Bossi said, directly contradicting the statement he made less than one month earlier. Now Bossi is trying to present himself as a supporter of decent immigrants, stating: ‘Regular immigrants, immigrants who work, honest immigrants – we’re ready to help them.’ (9)
Alessandro Cè, the LN whip in the lower house of the Italian parliament, has gone as far as to assert that his party now believes in cultural equality, if not multiculturalism.
The more sophisticated AN has distanced itself from anti-immigrant politics for a considerable period of time. Its leader, Gianfranco Fini, described Le Pen as ‘alien’ and expressed concerns that his success threatened re-establishing a Europe based on nationalism, not union. Fini’s explanation of the Le Pen victory was quite astute, arguing that five years of cohabitation between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin had ‘sterilised their confrontation’ and driven voters to protest.
The focus on the AN and LN helps Berlusconi and his FI party appear moderate. This seems ironic, when you look at something like the Berlusconi government’s new immigration legislation. During a TV interview in March 2002, Berlusconi called on the Italian parliament to look favourably on the immigration bill: ‘In no time we’ll be thrown out of our own country by masses of immigrants’, he suggested. Italy’s population has one of Europe’s lowest proportions of immigrants at approximately two million, yet this has not limited Berlusconi’s alarmist statements. ‘It will be a dramatic situation, with a pressure that will lead to war and 11 September-type situations with the re-emergence of terrorism’, he said.
The new legislation will make it much harder for immigrants to obtain work permits in Italy and will reduce the rights of relatives to join them. It will also speed up deportation and give the navy new powers to intervene when boats of immigrants approach Italy’s shores. It is these measures that have real implications for the lives of immigrants, not the outrageous outbursts of politicians like Bossi.
Police raids and mass deportations of immigrants have greatly increased under Berlusconi’s government. The interior minister, Claudio Scajola, boasted after the repatriation of more than 1300 immigrants in a few days during February 2002: ‘This is the biggest operation we have ever carried out in Italy.’ In March 2002, Scajola estimated that expulsions of asylum seekers had risen by 30 percent since in June 2001. The European Commission’s concern over the AN and NL in Italy only means that Berlusconi and his FI party can pursue anti-immigrant policies while appearing mainstream.
Governing parties across Europe are improving their tolerant reputations in comparison with far-right groups. Le Pen has contributed to this impression by criticising the leaders of Britain, Spain and Italy for their expressions of support for Chirac in the coming second round of elections. Berlusconi has had to overcome considerable personal animosity towards Chirac to offer him his support. But even Berlusconi realises that this is necessary to improve his own reputation as a moderate.
The overreaction to Le Pen and far-right groups will benefit governments across Europe by making them appear tolerant while they are implementing measures that make life tougher for immigrants. There is no spectre of fascism haunting Europe, only a myth that lets anti-immigrant governments off the hook.
Dominic Standish is a columnist for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consulting in the Veneto region of Italy (email@example.com).
The myth of the far right, by Brendan O’Neill
Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume
Continental drift, by James Heartfield
Defending democracy – against the voters, by Josie Appleton
Too late, the French left have a cause, by James Heartfield
(1) ‘Far rightists gain support across much of Europe’, Alan Riding, International Herald Tribune, 23 April 2002
(2) ‘Europe’s shift in electoral politics’, Financial Times online, 22 April 2002
(3) ‘Anti-immigrant parties gain across Europe’, Sunday Times, 28 April 2002
(4) See The Italian Gaffe, by Dominic Standish
(5) ‘Berlusconi assures that Bossi is no Le Pen’, Anne Ruderman, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 24 April 2002
(6) ‘What’s good about Le Pen’s success’, James Walston, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 24 April 2002
(7) ‘Berlusconi assures that Bossi is no Le Pen’, Anne Ruderman, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 24 April 2002
(8) ‘Flood of refugees causes spilt in Italian cabinet’, Richard Owen, The Times (London), 20 March 2002
(9) Corriere della Sera, 24 April 2002
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