An uneasy Europe swings right

French voters are poised to elect a conservative-majority parliament Sunday, as Europe focuses on law and order.

Unsettled by rising immigration, unsure of their personal safety, and uncertain about their future, European voters are turning in election after election to conservative parties promising reassurance.

At the next milestone on the Continent's march to the right, French voters seem set to give President Jacques Chirac a convincing parliamentary majority on Sunday. The president's supporters won 44 percent of the vote in first-round polling last weekend, well ahead of the Socialists' 36 percent.

They did so by playing the law-and-order card strongly – a tactic that has worked well for conservative parties elsewhere in Europe recently – to win back voters who had drifted into the camp of extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen.

"If people feel insecure, they believe that more-conservative parties will be more severe in fighting that insecurity," says Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst. "That is a key theme across Europe."

The French elections confirm a year-long Continental trend that has seen left-of-center governments chased out of office in Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Norway and Holland. In Germany, Social Democratic leader Gerhard Schröder is trailing his right wing rival, Edmund Stoiber, as September elections approach.

Some analysts see the shift as merely a predictable swing in the democratic cycle. Two years ago almost all of the 15 countries in the European Union were ruled by Social Democratic governments, but voters dissatisfied with their leaders' performance have turned elsewhere for new guidance.

"In the mid-1990s we saw a synchronization, which was a reflection of the process of European integration, that produced a concerted swing to the center left," says John Palmer, head of the European Policy Center in Brussels. "The economic and political climate in many of these countries is the same, so it isn't surprising that now we are seeing the normal swing of the pendulum ... to the center right."

Far-right bedfellows

But the recovery of traditional conservative parties has been shadowed by the rise of more extreme, anti-immigrant and nationalist right-wing parties in several countries, expressing deeper fears in the electorate.

European integration "means modernization, which means you have to accept the risks and dangers that entails," argues Sergio Romano, a prominent Italian commentator. "Parts of society will suffer from this. Immigration has somehow become the focus on which all worries can be concentrated."

Those worries stem from the changes European nations are going through as they hand over more powers to central authorities in Brussels, and attempt painful economic reforms to streamline the continent and make it competitive in an era of globalization.

These changes and reforms go to the root of questions of national identity, and of national autonomy in a European Union that is pooling more and more authority even as it prepares to admit up to 10 new nations from Central and Eastern Europe.

"Support for extreme right-wing nationalist parties is based partly on the sense that orders are being given from outside," says Stephen George, professor of European politics at Sheffield University in England. That feeling has been heightened by the way governments have had to tighten their budgetary belts so as to pass the entry test for the common European currency, the euro. Members of the euro club must keep their budget deficits and inflation rates below strict targets.

That has cramped traditional social democratic parties' freedom to follow their standard social welfare policies and promote high employment.

"In a globalizing world," points out Mr. Palmer, "national governments' autonomy of action has pushed social democrats into an ideological telephone box."

The left-wing governments that had dominated Europe until recently also stand accused of ducking the everyday issues of immigration and crime, which are closely linked – however unfairly – in many voters' minds.

"All that they (the right) have to do is to shout 'no' in a loud voice," complained Italian social democratic leader Francesco Rutelli in a recent interview in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. "Left-wing parties, on the other hand, trying to marry their liberal approach with popular worries "have to come up with a complex response" that is not always clear.

Significantly, perhaps, the only center-left leader in Europe who is still riding high in the polls, British prime minister Tony Blair, has made stopping illegal immigration one of his highest priorities.

Other governments too, anxious to head off antiforeigner sentiment, have begun to tackle the question. EU interior ministers met two weeks ago in Rome with their counterparts from EU applicant countries to begin harmonizing their immigration and asylum rules.

But the rise of conservative parties has brought more extreme forces with them into government ranks. In Austria, Italy, Portugal, and Norway, center-right parties have formed ruling coalitions with openly anti-immigrant parties. The Dutch Christian Democrat leader Jan Peter Balkenende is expected to invite followers of the slain anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn into his government, and the Danish government relies on the parliamentary votes of the antiforeigner Peoples' Party to stay in office. These coalition partners are uniformly hostile to the European Union. They are populist forces feeding on resentment against political elites – and the European Union is very much an elitist project, with which ordinary Europeans are often out of step.

The bottom line

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the center-right's new ascendancy will make much difference in economic terms. Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has been unable to keep his promise to cut taxes – he cannot afford to do that if he is to keep budget deficits within prescribed euro-zone limits. And his efforts to liberalize labor laws, making it easier to sack workers, provoked the country's first general strike in years.

President Chirac will recall that his attempt to push through reforms in the teeth of opposition from the public sector unions brought the last conservative government down in 1997.

"In Europe, reforms have to be done in the framework of social-welfare systems that nobody wants to eliminate," says Dr. Romano. "It's a cultural matter, and it's not easily changed."

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