Paul Anderson charts the warning signals in the
rise of Le Pen and the populist anti-immigrant right.
pril 21 2002 has to go down as one of the darkest days
for European social democracy in the past 50 years. For Lionel
Jospin to fail to reach the second round of the French presidential
election would have been a disaster in any circumstances.
For him to be beaten by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was
utterly shocking, the most profound defeat for the left in
democratic Europe since 1945.
What went wrong? Jospin's government - despite notable successes
such as the 35-hour week - was not popular, and Jospin himself
was not the most inspiring of candidates. He also ran a dismal
campaign. The opinion polls nevertheless suggested that he
would coast into the second round, and many left-wing voters
decided to use the first round of the presidential election
to protest against the deficiencies of the government by backing
one of the fringe left candidates or the Greens - a self-indulgence
that most regretted as soon as the exit polls were broadcast.
Add the chord that Le Pen's dominant themes of crime and immigration
struck with many voters, and the die was cast for the debacle
Of course, president Jacques Chirac won in the second round
of the presidential election on May 5 - and it is possible
that the left, shocked out of its complacency by its failure
on April 21, will do well enough in the National Assembly
elections in June to win another majority. Perhaps, by early
summer, France will be back to the status quo ante, with a
left coalition government cohabiting with Chirac as president.
But such an outcome. by no means guaranteed, would not wipe
out the disaster of April 21 - and even this, the most optimistic
current scenario, is a far cry from what seemed achievable
when the polls opened on April 21. There seemed then a real
chance that Jospin would win a victory that would massively
strengthen the position of social democracy in the European
Union after the general election defeats of ruling socialist
parties in Austria, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal in
the past three years.
As it is, the prognosis for the west European centre-left
is gloomier than at any time for a decade. Social democrats
are still in power in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Sweden and
of course the United Kingdom. But in the Netherlands, which
holds its general election in May, the Labour-dominated coalition
government has resigned ahead over the damning report on the
role of Dutch troops during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre -
and the running in the election campaign is being made by
a populist anti-immigrant right-winger.
In Germany, which holds a general election in autumn, the
alarm bells are ringing for chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
The same day as Jospin crashed to defeat in France the German
Social Democrats slumped to an unexpectedly ignominious defeat
in the regional election in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt
- almost unreported in the British press. The SPD haemorrhaged
support to the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism,
the liberal Free Democrats and the centre-right Christian
Democratic Union. The spectre looms of a return to the centre-right
coalition that ruled the Federal Republic from 1983 to 1998.
Why is social democracy in this predicament? One way of answering
this question is to go through the particular circumstances
of each country - the perception in Spain that the Socialists
were corrupt and had run out of steam, the failure of the
Italian centre-left to push through much-needed economic and
political reforms, the hopelessly schismatic nature of the
French left, the economic plight of former East Germany, and
But there are also factors that are common across western
Europe. At the most general level, there has been a catastrophic
erosion almost everywhere of the ability of the major left
and centre-left parties to retain the loyalty of what were
once their core voters, particularly the working class. (The
most remarkable instance is not a social democratic party
but the once-mighty French Communist Party, which 30 years
ago easily scooped up one-fifth of the vote in a general election.
Its presidential candidate on April 21, Robert Hue, won a
derisory 3.5 per cent.)
This is partly down to changes in society and mass culture
that have been remarked upon for the best part of 50 years
- the rise of consumerism and the (increasingly tax-averse)
affluent white-collar worker who identifies with the middle
class, deindustrialisation and the fragmentation of working-class
communities, the decline of political activity in parties
and so forth. But it also has a lot to do with the inability
of left and centre-left parties, in the face of all this and
globalisation too, to articulate a coherent reformist programme
that appeals to the self-interest of the poor without frightening
away the relatively well off.
Ever since the end of Francois Mitterrand's early-eighties
French experiment in nationalisation and Keynesian reflation,
the nearest thing that the left has had to a credible defining
grand project has been the construction of a "social
Europe". The big idea, articulated by Jacques Delors
and others, was an over-arching plan for not just economic
but political union, with the introduction of basic workers'
rights throughout a new democratic, federalist European Union
alongside the introduction of an expansionist counter-cyclical
Europe-wide economic policy based on a single European currency.
But, with the right in government in nearly all the major
EC states in the late 1980s and early 1990s - and with federalism
anathema to the French and British governments - the deal
that was struck on creating the European Union at Maastricht
and subsequently was far from the social democrats' dream.
The leading figures in several social democratic parties,
most notably the British, responded by capitulating to what
the French call "neo-liberalism", the doctrine that
only a hire-and-fire work culture, backed up with punitive
measures against the supposedly work-shy, could possibly work
in the new globalised economy.
Instead of what would effectively have been a democratically
accountable European government pursuing a redistributionist
growth-oriented policy, the EU got a single currency run by
an independent central bank committed only to anti-inflationary
rigour. When social democrats came to power in the late 1990s
in Italy, France and then Germany, the three biggest countries
then in the putative euro-zone, they found their room for
manoeuvre in the short term seriously constrained by the imperative
of sticking to the timetable for monetary union. Their supporters'
high expectations were dashed.
The fact is that western Europe's social democratic governments
missed a great opportunity in 1998-99 to put together a far-reaching
revision of the EU's political and economic settlement along
the lines originally envisaged by Delors. That they didn't
is easily explicable. The advocates of such a course (the
Jospin government and Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance
minister) were unceremoniously blocked by their opponents
(the Labour government in Britain and Schroeder, but also
the Italian centre-left), who believed that what Europe needed
was a large dose of deregulation, privatisation and flexible
labour markets. Just as important, no consensus emerged either
on the political shape a democratically reformed EU should
take; and, in its absence, the EU focused its efforts on the
challenge of enlargement - the implications of which for public
opinion inside the EU were never taken seriously.
It is here that the failure of the centre-left to come up
with a coherent purpose locks into another common theme of
west European politics in the past five years: the rise of
a populist anti-immigrant right. Of course, antipathy to immigrants
in western Europe long predates any plan to expand the single
labour market to the low-wage zones of east-central Europe,
and there is much more to it than fears of wages being driven
down and of secure jobs disappearing.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the imminence
of enlargement has been one of the factors - along with the
growth in the number of asylum-seekers and in illegal immigration
that have accompanied the de facto decision of affluent western
Europe to stop legal immigration - that have given the anti-immigrant
The desire of large numbers of people in poor and war-torn
parts of the world to come to relatively peaceful, affluent
western Europe is completely understandable. So too, however,
are at least some of the fears of immigration that are exploited
by Le Pen, Haider and their ilk. It would be utterly reprehensible
to condone the racism of the populist anti-immigrant right
or to abandon the practice of offering asylum to the persecuted.
But there are good reasons for adopting policies - with the
emphasis on the carrot not the stick - that both persuade
would-be economic immigrants to western Europe to stay put
in their own countries and reassure west European workers
that their jobs, wages and pensions are not going to be sacrificed
on the altar of market economics.
The arguments bandied about by the Labour government in the
past few weeks - that immigration is good for the economy
and that we're really hard on asylum seekers - send precisely
the wrong message. This one demands the generosity and foresight
of the Marshall plan - a radical reorientation of western
policy towards rebuilding the shattered economies of the former-communist
and third worlds.