Continent of Fear: The Rise of Europe's Right-Wing Populists

Part 3: France's New National Front

Photo Gallery: The Right on the Rise Photos

When the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, began his campaign in 2007, it was difficult to distinguish some of his rhetoric from Le Pen's. For example, he suggested that people who "slaughter sheep in their bathtubs" were unwelcome in France, and he won the election because he brought together votes from the right. Now Sarkozy will probably soon be confronted with a new National Front, a toned-down -- but perhaps more dangerous -- version of its former self. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the party's founder, will campaign for the party's chairmanship in January and intends to create a party that could also appeal to the political center.

Marine Le Pen portrays herself as non-dogmatic and intellectual. She wears business suits and distributes kisses during her campaign appearances at markets in the Paris metropolitan area. "I want to unite all the French," she says. At the same time, like Wilders, she raves against the burqa and Islamization. She too has recognized that targeted Islamophobia is more promising than traditional xenophobia.

Le Pen poses a threat to Sarkozy, whose own shift to the right this year reveals how seriously he takes that threat. The debate he has launched in France over "national identity" is clearly directed against Muslims, and he has also embarked on a campaign to deport the Roma. So far, these tactics have done nothing for Sarkozy in the polls.

Borrowing Ideas

The transformation of the National Front is only one example of the new anti-Islamic mainstream among Western Europe's right-wing populist parties. This is the issue that unites all of these parties throughout Europe, which have even taken to borrowing each other's marketing ideas. For example, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) copied a game from the website of Swiss People's Party (SVP), in which players shoot at minarets popping up in their familiar landscape. The only difference was that the Austrian version also included the option of shooting at the muezzins.

This is a new phenomenon, and it cannot hide the fact that there are still many differences among the parties that are being lumped together under the heading of right-wing populism. It is certainly true that most of them have always been anti-immigration, have positioned themselves against the political elite, have had charismatic leaders and have done particularly well in countries in which the established parties cultivate a culture of consensus. But a neoliberal with rural roots like Swiss politician Christoph Blocher of the SVP has very little in common with the French demagogue Le Pen. Their origins are too different, as are many of the details of their policies.

It is the shared concept of Islam as the enemy that now makes them ideological allies. Still, it is unlikely that these parties will continue to cooperate across borders in the future, despite Wilders' dream of spearheading such a movement throughout Europe. The "International Freedom Alliance" he established in July has two goals: to "defend freedom" and "stop Islam." In a video which is currently the only content on the alliance's website, Wilders says that he wants to pool the existing forces against Islam, in Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the United States.

When asked about Wilders' initiative, Marine Le Pen told SPIEGEL: "Without a concerted revolution, our civilization is ultimately doomed." This may be an acknowledgement of common goals, but it doesn't sound like she necessarily wants to join Wilders' organization.

Handsome Speaking Fees

So far, Wilders has only been successful abroad with right-wing Islamophobic groups in the United States. At the invitation of these groups, he has traveled around the United States for years, collecting awards for his supposed battle to uphold freedom of speech and giving talks to enthusiastic fans -- and collecting handsome speaking fees in the process.

David Horowitz, a millionaire conservative online journalist with anti-Islamic views, told the Dutch television station Avro that he pays Wilders a $20,000 speaking fee. Horowitz describes Wilders as the "Winston Churchill" of the war against Islam. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Wilders attended a rally at Ground Zero, where he spoke out against the planned construction of an Islamic community center two blocks away from the site.

American audiences are more enthusiastic about Wilders, who tells them horror stories about how Muslims have infiltrated Europe, than his fans in any other country. Muslims make up only 1 percent of the US population, and while the anger of voters of right-wing populists in Europe is directed against actual immigrants in their countries, conservative American groups cultivate an Islamophobia without Muslims. Some 50 percent of Americans now say that they have a negative impression of Islam, a higher percentage than after the 9/11 attacks.

'Thank You, Thilo Sarrazin!'

This weekend, Wilders will appear in Berlin as the representative of a political movement for which a market also seems to exist in Germany, even if it currently lack an effective salesman or saleswoman.

There will undoubtedly be an audience when former CDU politician René Stadtkewitz greets Wilders in Berlin. The German polemical website Politically Incorrect, a gathering place for the sharpest critics of Islam for years, is heavily promoting the appearance. The website is even selling T-shirts, for €19.90 apiece, imprinted with the words "Geert Wilders - Berlin - October 2, 2010" -- available in 19 different colors.

There are no Stadtkewitz T-shirts for sale, although the website does sell T-shirts imprinted with the words "Thank You, Thilo Sarrazin!"


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Graphic: Europe's Right Turn Zoom

Graphic: Europe's Right Turn

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