The March to the Far Right

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Ideologues can parody themselves more effectively than any satirist. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, is sipping sparkling water in a hotel lounge and comparing himself to Mahatma Gandhi. The BNP aims to send nonwhite Britons "home." At private BNP rallies, Griffin, convicted in 1998 of incitement to racial hatred, warns adherents that Muslim men are plotting to defile underage British girls, peppering his invective with concocted statistics such as this one: "The average racist murderer in this country is 40 times more likely to be a member of an ethnic minority than the other way round." It's safe to say that a resemblance to India's icon of peaceable nationalism isn't immediately obvious. The link turns out to be distributism, a philosophy opposed to big government and big corporations alike and a formative influence for both men, according to Griffin. "[Distributism] took Gandhi in a very similar direction — mutatis mutandis obviously," he says. "I'm not going to wear a loincloth, you'll be pleased to hear."

The floppy-haired 50-year-old looks every inch the country gent as TIME sets out to photograph him against the picture-pretty backdrop of Welshpool, a market town near his home in rural Wales. Hardscrabble neighborhoods are the BNP's core recruiting grounds, but Griffin also finds a hero's welcome in this green and pleasant land. "Good on you, mate!" bellows an admirer, craning dangerously from a top-floor window as an old man sprints over to glad-hand his idol and motorists honk their appreciation from passing cars.

Far-right parties are attracting applause in many corners of Europe these days. Almost a million British voters honked their horns for the BNP in June's European elections, giving the party its first two seats in the European Parliament and a corresponding boost to legitimacy and funding. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) elbowed aside centrist rivals to grab second place in the Netherlands' Euro poll. Around Europe a ragbag of extremist parties, as varied as the countries that produced them yet united by a vehement nationalism that singles out minority groups as a growing threat, scored in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia. Confronted with sliding economies and disappearing jobs, voters kicked the mainstream parties they held most responsible.

This wasn't a simple protest vote, even if bruised centrist politicians were quick to dismiss the results. Over the years, far-right fortunes have surged, only to ebb as the parties have shot themselves in the jackboot with internal feuds and rickety organization. Now outfits such as the BNP are learning from past mistakes: they're slicker, and combine old-fashioned grassroots activism with Internet campaign techniques borrowed from the Obama playbook. They're also well placed to exploit the disillusionment with traditional politics that has seen voter turnouts in European and national elections plummet, and membership of big parties dwindle. As the global economy limps along and Western nations struggle to balance the needs of longtime citizens and newer immigrants, nobody should doubt that the far right is well positioned to attract yet more followers.

For those who believe that this would be a catastrophe, the urgent question is how best to contain the surge. Deny far-right leaders the oxygen of publicity? Tricky — they have a democratic mandate. Confront them? That risks casting them as martyrs, victims who tell unpalatable truths. Expose the racism that often underlies professions of patriotism? Well, yes, but that assumes voters choose far-right parties in ignorance of their views, rather than because they strike a chord. Steal their nationalist thunder by taking tough lines on issues such as immigration? This smacks of capitulation to the very ideas critics seek to defeat.

To help cut through this muddle, TIME looks at four parties — the BNP, France's Front National (FN), Hungary's Jobbik and the PVV — their sometimes clashing ideologies and policies, and the misjudgments of mainstream opponents that have helped boost their extremist appeal.

Blaming Islam

Last December, Wilders addressed a Jerusalem conference called Facing Jihad. "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present," he intoned. "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion." If these phrases seem familiar, that's because they're borrowed from Abraham Lincoln, who framed them as civil war raged in the U.S. a century and a half ago.

These days Wilders, 45, charismatic, shock-haired and articulate, warns of a different sort of conflict between Dutch Muslims and the rest of his country's citizens. Many of his arguments begin with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing "war on terror," which have helped create a toxic alchemy that has given a new focus to far-right politics in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The Dutch, who pride themselves on their tolerance and inclusive attitudes, have been shocked to discover that many Muslims in the Netherlands feel dispossessed and discriminated against, and that some even empathize with jihadis. As in Britain, where English-born bombers have planned or carried out a series of attacks over the past few years, the sense of alienation in the Muslim community is reflected not just in the terrorists' rage but also in moderate Muslims' readiness to believe conspiracy theories that pin blame for 9/11 and other attacks on Western governments. Dutch citizens, in turn, have become more suspicious of Muslim neighbors, resentful that Dutch hospitality has seemingly counted for nothing.

It's tough to build bridges across such a chasm of mutual suspicion — and much easier to exploit it. Wilders has long played on fears of the enemy within. Only 5% of the Dutch population — around 850,000 people — is Muslim. But Dutch Muslim communities are highly visible, being concentrated in urban areas, and their birthrates outstrip those of the wider community. "Islam wants to dominate every part of life and society," says Wilders. "It does not want to integrate or assimilate."

The Netherlands' historically relaxed immigration policies have already tightened up since the 2002 election of Jan Peter Balkenende's conservative coalition. The PVV leader proposes going further by halting all immigration from non-Western countries, banning the Koran and deporting any Muslim who breaks the law. His rhetoric recalls Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician gunned down in 2002, days before an election that would almost certainly have given him a parliamentary platform to air his hard-line views on immigration. Fortuyn's friend and compatriot Theo van Gogh was working on a film about Fortuyn's assassination when he himself was murdered in 2004. His killer, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent angered by Submission, Van Gogh's polemic against Islam, left a note on the body signed "Saifu Deen al-Muwahhied." Wilders had been threatened in a letter with the same signature (which means "Unifying sword of religion") earlier that year. He still receives 24-hour police protection. "I lost my freedom," says Wilders. "It is a very high price to pay."

That's undoubtedly true. Wilders says he sleeps in a different location every night. But the image of the brave outsider, prepared to tell the truth and hang the consequences, has also proved a potent electoral tool. "[Wilders] says what others don't dare to say," says Gil Timmermans, a 39-year-old car mechanic who voted for the PVV. "I'm not a racist, but if the Muslims get their way, it could be the end of our Dutch way of life."

Slick and Mostly Polished

Nationalists often speak of the importance of preserving their national culture. But the cultures they describe are often mythic. It is amid the rubble of discarded beer cans and the bleakness of northern English housing estates that never knew a genteel past that the BNP finds its most enthusiastic support. It is also in exactly such areas that disenchantment with mainstream politics — intensified in Britain by the recent scandal over MPs' expenses — is at its most profound.

During 12 years in power, the Labour Party has raised living standards for many low-income families, but Britain remains one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Labour's repositioning as New Labour, a party of middle England, also left swathes of its traditional working-class voters with a sense that their own party had abandoned them. In June, these voters proved most susceptible to the BNP's promises of better representation for "the invisible majority" of white citizens and a stop to immigration and asylum. Similar conditions and promises boosted the Front National's first-round tally in last month's municipal elections in Hénin-Beaumont, a down-at-heel town in northwestern France and former Socialist Party stronghold.

Without big national platforms and regular media access, far-right parties rely heavily on door-to-door campaigning and local meetings. The bigger parties ignore such old-fashioned techniques at their peril, says Eric Pickles, chairman of Britain's Conservative Party. "You've got a kind of [mainstream politician] representing those estates who didn't grow up on them, doesn't know them well and visits like a political tourist." Mainstream parties have "got to re-engage the population," he says. "You can't write the people off who voted BNP as all being Nazis. It's neglect."

The BNP and its ilk bear out P.T. Barnum's aphorism that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Modern right-wing parties are smart enough to know that every criticism, every scandal, every court case, every article — including this one — is liable to send visitors to their websites, which could help them recruit members and raise funds. "The Obama campaign was brilliant. We learned a lot from it," says Griffin. So much, in fact, that online antiracist campaign Hope Not Hate has turned to Blue State Digital, an Internet consultancy that worked on the Obama campaign, to mobilize activists against the BNP by explaining that the party's smooth public image conceals a racist agenda. "It's very easy to attack a party that has a swastika as its emblem," says Sonia Gable, one of the founders of the campaign. "The BNP doesn't do that."

The BNP has also learned to turn attacks against it to its advantage. Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently investigating complaints that the BNP is breaching the law because it admits only "indigenous Caucasians" as members and employees. Griffin defines that group as "of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh descent, or closely related, assimilated European peoples" but can only name one nonwhite Briton — a mixed-race comedian called Charlie Williams — whose British roots go far enough back that the BNP would consider him for membership. Williams died in 2006. But while the EHRC has a statutory duty to follow up on the complaints it has received, it is doing so without enthusiasm, concerned that it could deliver a propaganda coup to the BNP. Griffin relishes high-profile denunciations. "When Gordon Brown urges people not to vote for us, it's manna from heaven. It's smashing stuff," he says.

Xenophobia Now

Far-right parties in western Europe tend to steer away from signs and symbols that might recall the darkest period of the continent's history. But Hungary's Jobbik — its name derives from job, a word meaning "right" or "better" — garnered 14.8% of the votes in the country's European elections with a campaign themed around the Arpad stripes, the nationalist flag that was co-opted by Hungarian fascists in the 1930s and 1940s. The party's chairman, Gabor Vona, 30, also chaired the Magyar Garda — or Hungarian Guard — a private militia that appeared at Jobbik rallies and marched through scores of Hungarian villages as part of its self-proclaimed mandate to protect "ethnic Hungarians" against the 6%-10% of the population of 10 million that are ethnically Roma, or gypsy. Vona was briefly detained by police at a July 4 rally called to protest a court order banning the Garda, which has now "relaunched" itself by adding the word Movement to its name. Despite police threats to charge Garda leaders with breaking the court order, Vona has promised to wear the group's uniform to the Hungarian parliament if, as polls project, he wins a seat in elections to be held within the next 10 months. "The radicalization of the extreme right in Hungary has become a fact. They are now breaking the law," says Krisztian Szabados, director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

Jobbik may look different to its corporatized Western European counterparts, but it's being lifted by the same underlying forces: fears of invasive foreign cultures and of global competition, and a profound disaffection with mainstream politics. The excitement with which Hungarians embraced multiparty politics after the fall of Communism has curdled, with confidence in mainstream parties damaged by their perceived failure to tackle the country's economic woes. "It is a kind of vacuum," says Attila Pok, a historian with the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. "A great number of voters do not believe in the established élite, either on the right or left. They voted for the newest, loudest and most clearly speaking platform." continues here

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