Observers have noted with alarm the growing assertiveness of Europe's far Right and the political legitimacy it has come to enjoy in many countries on the back of an increasingly anti-immigrant public mood.

Last month, as sparks flew over the French government's crackdown on immigrants, particularly the way President Nicolas Sarkozy personally intervened to order expulsion of Roman gypsies, the New Statesman carried a cover story headed: “France Turns Right.” While the French controversy rumbles on with the European Union threatening legal action against France for being allegedly in breach of one of its fundamental principles — the right of its citizens to move and work freely within the EU — it has been overtaken by reports of a broader Europe-wide lurch to the Right.

Observers have noted with alarm the growing assertiveness of Europe's far Right and the political legitimacy it has come to enjoy in many countries on the back of an increasingly anti-immigrant public mood. Post-war Europe has experienced Right-inspired social tensions before but this is thought to be the first time so many countries across the continent, including former communist societies, are affected.

According to Slavoj Zizek, Marxist intellectual and director of the London-based Birbeck Institute for the Humanities, the French move is “just the tip of a much larger iceberg of European politics.”

“Incidents like these have to be seen against the background of a long-term re-arrangement of the political space in western and eastern Europe,” he wrote in a newspaper article warning that the traditional liberal European consensus was under threat from “overtly racist neo-fascist groups.”

Another commentator likened the trend to an “infection” seeping through the continent's body politic. In the words of Abdelkader Benali, a leading Dutch writer of Moroccon origin, Europe is in the grip of a new “cold-blooded politics” of hate and fear. He says it is threatening the once-tolerant countries such as his own adopted homeland, the Netherlands, where the stridently anti-migrant and Islamophobic Freedom Party is within striking distance of sharing power after emerging the third largest party in the general elections earlier this year on a platform to ban further Muslim migration and outlaw construction of mosques.

Even as its leader Geert Wilders is being tried for inciting hatred, he is shamelessly wooed by the Liberals and the Christian Democrats to prop up a minority coalition government. In return, they are willing to pay the price he is demanding: a ban on burqa and stringent curbs on immigration.

No wonder, Mr. Wilders boasted that the development was a sign of a “new wind” blowing in the Netherlands and proof that voters supported his party's determination to stop “Islamisation” of the country.

Immigrants like Mr. Benali say they find their country's transformation from a haven of tolerance and multiculturalism into a hothouse of prejudice and social tensions shocking. “In the 1980s, this message [‘stop Islamisation'] would have made people laugh, but not now. Look around. In Sweden, the debate around Islam and migration is growing in urgency. And Islam is just a particularly toxic element in the anti-immigrant movement. Nicolas Sarkozy, who is part Jewish, is throwing out the Roma. In Germany, the country of the Holocaust, a former head of the Bundesbank, Thilo Sarazzin, is making a plea for reducing working class immigrants because of their low IQ. The idea that Europe is being kidnapped by an ever-growing non-western population is creating fear and populist parties are winning,” Mr. Benali warned, writing in The Observer. Tellingly, the article was headed: “I migrated to Europe with hope. Now I feel nothing but dread.”

In Sweden, hitherto seen as an “oasis of civility and openness,” the “neo-Nazi” Sweden Democrats party (SD) has, for the first time, won seats in Parliament in a development that has shocked liberals. The country's political map is being redrawn in a way few Swedes could have once imagined.

“We're in,” the SD's young leader, Jimmie Akesson, told his supporters. Liberal Swedish intellectuals have called for mainstream parties to reflect on why the SD was able to attract so many votes. “From no representation, it now has nearly 6 per cent of the vote, which means that it will get 20 MPs; it also destroys the previous centre-Right majority and creates an uncertain situation in Parliament,” Swedish writer Henning Mankell pointed out but said that instead of denouncing those who had voted for it as racists and xenophobic, it was important to ask why 3,00,000 people, among whom were many working class voters, chose to support it.

Blaming the SD's success on the refusal of mainstream parties to listen to voters' concerns about immigration, he said: “If we had the debate, the SD might have got into Parliament, but with far fewer seats. In fact, they could have been kept out of Parliament altogether.” In a chilling warning, he said: “But respect for the 3,00,000 people who voted for them [SD] demands that we accept the necessity of dialogue, before these 3,00,000 become two or three times as many.”

According to media reports, many of those who voted for the SD had been life-long supporters of the liberal Social Democratic Party. They insist that they are not racist and have nothing against foreigners but believe that there are too many immigrants and their alleged refusal to “integrate” threatens Swedish values. “It's become crazy around here. You can't go out in the evening. I've got nothing against foreigners. I've been married to a Bulgarian for 40 years. But these people don't share values,” one woman told a British newspaper.

A backlash against immigration, targeted mostly at Muslims, is also said to be behind the rise of extreme right-wing groups in Austria, Denmark, and Italy. In former communist countries such as Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania there is, in addition, a whiff of homophobia, anti-Semitism and a host of other social and cultural prejudices against minority groups. Far-Right groups have also made electoral gains in Latvia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The economic crisis, with millions of people losing their jobs and facing an uncertain future, has heightened public hostility towards immigrants who are seen as “spongers” — foreigners who are “stealing” local jobs and being a “drag” on public services and other resources. The current climate offers a fertile ground for the Right, which is making the most of it.

Matthew Goodwin, who teaches at the University of Nottingham, says far-Right parties are cynically exploiting people's anxieties. “When we ask voters in a range of different surveys about their views about immigrants and about Muslims we can see quite significant pockets of anxiety in populations across Europe. These parties are the tip of a much deeper trend,” he told al-Jazeera television.

“Their strategy is to mobilise opinion by arousing fear of the “other” — of anyone who is different: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime, the fear of godless sexual depravity, the fear of the excessive state,” as Professor Zizek puts it, echoing the findings of the Minority Rights Group (MRG), a London-based international campaign group.

In a report, it points to a significant increase in “right-wing radicalism” in the past two years — a period of deep economic crisis. In 2009, there were unprecedented gains for Right-wing parties in parliamentary elections across Europe.

“Successes in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, and at the national parliamentary level, have allowed these populist right-wing parties to shift formerly far-right ideas, on immigration for example, into the mainstream,” said Carl Soderbergh, MRG's Director of Policy and Communications.

There is concern that the anti-immigrant backlash could undermine European unity. The strong reaction in Brussels to President Sarkozy's attacks on Roma settlers is a sign, analysts say, of how seriously the EU is taking the issue. “The battle between France and the European Union over Paris's treatment of Roma migrants … goes to the heart of the growing threat to one of the foundation stones of the EU — the right of the bloc's 500 m citizens to live, work and study in any of the bloc's 27 countries,” said the Financial Times.

Critics warn that President Sarkozy's move — seen as an attempt to outflank Jean-Marie Le Pen's anti-immigrant National Front to which his party lost much ground in regional elections earlier this year — is a sign of the shape of things to come. They say it illustrates the “timidity” of mainstream centre-right parties in Britain, France and Germany to take on the far-Right politically. They have gone for the defeatist and lazy option based on the old playground adage that if you can't beat them, join them. In Britain, the Labour and the Tories have for long been engaged in a competitive rhetoric on immigration to steal the British National Party's thunder, and now we have President Sarkozy trying to give the NF a run for its money giving a new momentum to “a race to the bottom as to who can be more nasty to immigrants,” according to Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Britain's leading rights group, Liberty.

The prognosis doesn't look good.

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