Europe's Nationalism, Racism Rise

Even as countries prepare for unity, protectionist and `tribal' policies find a wider appeal

IN the next few years, if French human rights advocate Marek Halter is correct, politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen - stumping on protectionist, nationalist, and tribalist platforms - will become more popular in Western Europe despite the lip service to European unification. The most recent homage rendered to European unity and to human rights was at the Conference on Security and Cooperation which met in Paris late last month. Leaders of 34 nations signed a treaty committed to non-aggression and human rights.

By 1992, Western Europe is set to merge into a single market. But as Europeans prepare for unity, nationalism has been rising with an accompanying upsurge in racially motivated attacks on foreign workers and Jews.

In France, racism bubbled to the surface last spring in the ugliest event in year: the grisly desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras, southern France.

Afterward, 200,000 demonstrators in Paris - including French president Fran,cois Mitterrand and Cardinal Albert Ducourtray, head of the French Catholic Church - delivered a thundering rebuke to racism.

But, said Halter on a recent tour of the United States, ``this was the first and last time that the Church and the president will demonstrate their solidarity with the Jews.''

Halter says that the collapse of socialism as an ideology, the fading memory of the Nazi Holocaust, the fall of Israel from a moral high ground, and the end to the campaigns for East bloc dissidents - as well as tough economic times - have fostered a climate in which tribalism and racism can thrive.

Politicians, he predicts, will no longer risk their popularity to defend increasingly unpopular minorities. In France, says Halter, that means the 4 million so-called ``foreigners,'' mostly Arabs, and 700,000 Jews.

``Le Pen will become more popular yet,'' says Halter of the the head of France's National Front, a man Halter perceives as his natural adversary.

Le Pen maintains that foreign workers should go back home and that ``professional anti-racists'' were involved in the desecration of the cemetery at Carpentras. So far, the National Front has not made it into France's parliament, but it is represented on several major city councils. Halter and left-wing liberals in France say Le Pen's remarks are thinly veiled appeals to racist and fascist sentiment.

``Before,'' says Halter of Le Pen's growing popularity in France, ``everybody believed in human rights, socialism. Everybody thought it was possible to transform the world. Today, nobody believes that anymore. The communist and socialist revolutions failed. People are going back to their nation, their families, their tribes. So the ideas of Le Pen have an impact.''

``The idea,'' he says, ``is first I have to defend my family, my nation, my tribe.''

Halter, 54, a Jew and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, is one of the founders of SOS Racisme, which now boasts two million members in France. The group has become the nation's most militant crusader against racism. Halter is its most active spokesman.

The existence of SOS Racisme and other similar groups is testimony to a long tradition of human rights going back to the French Revolution. The French like to say they are a terre d'asile, a land that welcomes foreigners fleeing political oppression.

BUT at the same time, the French criticize themselves for being xenophobic, a trait that apparently stems from the traditional homogeneity in French society. During periods of mass foreign immigration to France, there have been backlashes: In World War II, many French allegedly collaborated with the Nazis in rounding up Jews, most of whom had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe. The mass influx of Arabs from North Africa in the late 1960s and '70s, during economic boom times, has fueled the current reaction.

``As long as everybody had work,'' says Halter of France's economy, ``we held the dirty jobs for the foreign workers. But now, there's more than 10 percent unemployment in France and the young French are ready to clean the streets. The foreigner has become the man who's taking their jobs. Le Pen is coming with simple views - `we have to protect our nationality and our jobs.'''

In addition, Jews, who were traditional scapegoats in Western Europe, are now no longer protected, says Halter. The Holocaust, the Nazi killing of six million Jews in World War II, has passed from memory to history.

Anti-Semites feel bolstered, says Halter, by citing Israel and its behavior toward the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip.

Finally, he says, while repression in the Eastern bloc swelled the ranks of human rights advocates in Western Europe, ``now there's no more challenge.''

``Today the dissidents are free,'' says Halter, ``and the first reaction of these freed people is nationalism.'' Having given the East democratic ideals, Western Europe is now learning nationalism from the East.

As for elsewhere in Europe, Halter says regional (what he calls ``tribal'') parties in Italy have scored recent gains. And Germany, he says, may well encounter problems in economically assimilating its population, which unification has swelled by 30 percent. ``The disappointed people can be mobilized with populist slogans,'' he says. ``There's a danger of a movement that could, over time, become fascist.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Europe's Nationalism, Racism Rise
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today