PARIS — A ray of light shone this week for European right-wing parties, as they cast about in the darkness of political opposition for a way to win back the power they have lost from one end of the Continent to the other.
Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), humiliated by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's defeat in national elections only four months ago, turned the tables on the ruling Social Democrat-Greens coalition last Sunday by winning back key regional seats in parliament.
But the path they took was a slippery one, critics are saying, and ran dangerously close to the cliff edge of xenophobia.
The CDU won the Hesse regional vote on the back of a nationwide campaign it organized against government plans to relax German citizenship rules. More than 1 million people have signed a petition against proposals to offer dual citizenship to some 2 million Turkish residents, among others.
The campaign has led to some ugly scenes between activists collecting signatures and foreigners. Even some party leaders have doubts about it.
"Even if it wins elections, this is not the way to win opinion leadership in the long term," said Michel Friedman, a senior CDU figure in Hesse.
"I don't think this is the route a modern conservative party should take," he added.
But nationalism is a tempting choice for right-wing parties, who only a decade ago ruled Europe with seemingly unassailable confidence and which today are hunting desperately for an image and a message that will appeal to voters.
Only Spain, among the 15 member states of the European Union, is ruled by a conservative government. Elsewhere on the Continent right-wing parties have been victims of an extraordinary sweep by socialist and social-democratic forces that have redefined themselves - in a manner reminiscent of President Clinton's approach - and seized the middle ground of European politics.
The challenge they face is clear. In France, for example, Premier Lionel Jospin's Socialist-led government has privatized more state enterprises than its conservative predecessor and is in the process of beefing up the police force to get tough on crime - typically a right-wing policy.
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's closest confidant, Peter Mandelson, had no qualms about declaring recently that there is nothing wrong with being "filthy rich," despite his membership in the Labour party - traditionally home to sworn enemies of the very wealthy.
And in Germany, Gerhard Schrder's Social Democratic party won last September's elections on the strength of a campaign pledge to do things "not differently, but better" than his conservative opponents, who had been in government for 16 years.
Loss of focus
Meanwhile, the right's traditional rallying points have lost their focus in recent years, making it hard for conservative parties to fashion an attractive message communicating a coherent vision.
Anticommunism, an enduring core value for the right, has become irrelevant since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Italian Christian Democratic party, which had ruled alone or in coalition since World War II, simply imploded when its raison d'tre - to keep the Communists out of power - evaporated.
Untrameled free-market economic policies, another key conservative plank in the 1980s, have also fallen into disfavor in Europe, where people are more afraid than enthusiastic about the effects of globalization and the drive for international competitiveness.
"Capitalism with a human face," a slogan that former British Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath embraced in the 1970s, today better describes the British Labour party's policy. Across Western Europe, the left-of-center parties have been better than their conservative rivals at promising protection from the harsh winds of global economic change.
Carving out new territory
As right-wing parties seek to carve out their own political territory, "they could develop a very clear profile for themselves in economic policy," says Susanne Schmidt, a political analyst in London. "But it's not a great vote winner to advocate deregulation of the labor market" which inevitably raises unemployment in the short term.
That sort of dilemma has prompted French right-wing parties to join battle instead on the cultural and social fronts: The opposition is fighting a bill that would, among other things, extend legal rights to homosexual couples, and the opposition-dominated Senate last week rejected a bill guaranteeing parity for men and women in French political life.
But these policies, flying in the face of public opinion, give conservatives an unwanted old-fashioned image, says leading Paris-based pollster Stephane Rozs. "The French are culturally quite liberal, and they don't want people setting standards for them in their private lives," he says.
In the current mood, he adds, "the right has the worst of both worlds - it is economically pro-free market and culturally authoritarian."
With the voice of the church commanding less and less attention in Europe, only one of the conservatives' traditional "hot button issues" still sets pulses racing: the nation. And some politicians are not hesitating to push it.
When the French parliament voted a constitutional amendment last month, allowing European Union law to override French law, Gaullist leader Charles Pasqua recalled darkly that the vote fell on the anniversary of the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871.
British Conservative leader William Hague, a day later, launched his vision of "The British Way," a document in which he warned that "transferring power from Westminster to Brussels [the seat of EU headquarters] ... strikes at the core of our national identity."
As the members of the European Union move closer to political integration, such warnings will doubtless help to rally the many opponents of a federal Europe. But they cannot rally the right behind a vision of the future, because across the Continent, conservative parties are split between advocates and enemies of closer European unity.
In Britain the debate between Euroskeptics and Europhiles has paralyzed the Conservative Party for several years. In France it has helped split the right into the seven competing groups which will each be putting up their own candidates at next June's elections to the European parliament.
They range from the respectably patriotic to the rabidly racist, such as National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The danger, worries Dr. Schmidt, is that the borders between such forces might be blurred if conservatives elsewhere follow the German Christian Democrats' example.
"Nationalist postures might win them voters from the right, but they would lose them voters from the middle," she predicts. "And the great mass of voters are in the middle."