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Dark clouds looming over Europe

Publication Date : 25-04-2012


Whether centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy or socialist Francois Hollande is elected in the French presidential run-off, the outlook for the nation does not look promising. Neither has enthused the electorate, as indicated in their first-round vote which was less than the 30 per cent total cast against them by right- and left-leaning voters. But what either of them will be forced to do to win on May 6 is of interest well beyond Europe - and that is worrying. Both look beholden to voters of the extreme right, whose National Front candidate Marine Le Pen polled 18 per cent to become the woman the men are courting.

It is a sign of all that is going badly wrong with the federal Europe experiment as growth and jobs dip, people feel let down and governments get voted out, to be replaced by teams that are just as challenged on ideas. Le Pen's power base is the deep vein of discontent that is being tapped by the two contenders. What sort of France will emerge from a negative contest will be watched closely. Together with Germany, the two nations form the fulcrum upon which Europe is supposed to turn - from a continent weighed down by a history of bloody wars, to one based on federalism and an idealistic prosperity consensus. Mr Sarkozy will appeal to the rightist bloc more than his rival, as his battle cry of 'France for the French' approximates Le Pen's openly xenophobic agenda of keeping Europe European and Christian.

The march of the far right across Europe will draw heart from the performance of the French National Front. The Dutch government has just fallen because a right-wing coalition partner withheld support for austerity as the price of euro zone fiscal rigour. Well before this, the Scandinavian nations, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary had turned on immigrants and their Muslim communities to vent frustrations, not always for economic reasons.

France has been the model of fraternal high-mindedness for the rest of Europe. This may change. There is therefore something sordid about Sarkozy's reference to the rise of Hitlerite fascism, arising from economic and social discontent, when he warned against the spread of populism across Europe. 'If we change nothing, if we don't agree on new rules, we risk taking the tragic path of the 1930s,' he said after the first-round vote. Whatever the pitch he was making, Europe is at a critical moment. This matters to the world because of its huge market, its inventiveness and philosophical and cultural sensibilities which have inspired and shaped other societies. If Europe chooses to close in on itself, the effects will be felt far and wide.


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