When Europe’s leaders, including Angela Merkel and David Cameron, called François Hollande to pledge their solidarity and co-operation following the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, they must have been acutely conscious that such a bloody event – now unfolding as a series of attacks – could equally have happened in their own countries. They must also be uncomfortably aware that such atrocities, apparently carried out by well-trained Muslim extremists, could reinforce the political backlash against the liberal values of the so-called ‘elite’ they represent.
The dilemma for Hollande, Merkel and Cameron, as well as their colleagues, is that in seeking to avoid inflaming inter-communal tension, they can so easily be blamed for being in denial of the terrorist threat.
Right-wing populist parties, already riding a substantial protest vote from last year’s European parliament elections with their anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms, moved swiftly to exploit renewed alarm at the rise of Islamist fundamentalism.
In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National (FN), declared that ‘France must go to war against fundamentalist Islam’, and called for a referendum on reintroduction of the death penalty (abolished in 1981). Recent polls put her popularity at 29 per cent, more than double the level for President Hollande.
In Germany, the PEGIDA movement (the acronym, in German, stands for ‘Patriotic Europeans against Islamization of the West’) has brought thousands of supporters onto the streets of Dresden and other cities in recent weeks. It has warned that ‘our politicians’ were in denial of the threat. ‘Must such a tragedy happen here in Germany first?’ the group asked on its Facebook page.
Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, which campaigns on a platform to stop immigration from Muslim countries, immediately attacked the Dutch prime minister. ‘When will (Mark) Rutte and other western government leaders finally get the message?’ he demanded. ‘It’s a war.’
In the UK, Nigel Farage, whose UK Independence Party (UKIP) topped the national poll in the European election, blamed the rise of Islamist extremism on the failure of a ‘really rather gross model of multiculturalism’. The Paris killings had ‘very worrying implications for our civilization’, he said, and went on to talk of a ‘fifth column’ of people living in European countries with European passports, with hate in their hearts. The clear implication was that lax immigration rules were to blame.
David Cameron retorted that this was ‘not the day to make political remarks or political arguments’. Nick Clegg, his deputy, expressed dismay at Farage’s use of the Paris massacre for ‘political point-scoring’.
It is easy enough for populist leaders, with none of the responsibility of power, to use inflammatory language in the wake of such an atrocity. They can talk of ‘war’ and ‘fifth columns’. It is all part of their programme of knocking the establishment and pandering to prejudice. It is also undoubtedly what terrorists themselves would like to see: they would be delighted to provoke a ‘clash of civilizations’ and an Islamophobic backlash, which would then act as an excellent recruiting mechanism for disaffected young Muslims to join the ranks of Islamic State (IS) or Al-Qaeda in the Middle East.
So far, it is the German chancellor who has been most forthright in challenging the demonstrations and rhetoric against ‘Islamization’. In her New Year’s address she urged Germans not to join the PEGIDA protests, warning that the movement’s leaders ‘all too often … have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts’.
Merkel cannot be accused of excessive political correctness. She defended publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2010, and awarded a prize to the cartoonist. But she does not face an immediate populist threat in Germany, in spite of the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the anti-euro party that won seven seats in the European parliament last year, and 12 per cent of the vote in the recent state election in Brandenburg.
Several top members of the AfD have come out strongly in favour of the PEGIDA protests, but the issue of Islam and immigration has also caused deep divisions in the party leadership, anxious not to be labelled as a far-right organization. There is a struggle for power in the party that may weaken its popular appeal. Merkel’s instinct to occupy the middle ground has not failed her yet.
Both Hollande and Cameron face greater dangers, for the FN in France and UKIP in Britain have more political momentum since they topped their respective national polls for the European parliament.
In his response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, Hollande looked presidential and decisive for the first time in many months. If he is seen as a unifying national figure at a time of great crisis, it might revive his political fortunes. But he is trailing far behind both Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, in the polls. The Socialist Party looks set to lose more seats to the FN at local elections in March.
Cameron knows that inroads by UKIP in marginal Conservative seats could well deny him victory in the May general election in the UK. Hitherto he has been tempted to move to the right in order to steal UKIP’s clothes – by adopting a tough anti-immigration policy, and promising to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Following the Paris shootings, Cameron seems more likely to aim to be statesmanlike and unifying, rather than risk appearing divisive and intolerant. Serious Islamophobic rhetoric would push him out of the mainstream and provoke a significant backlash. It would be both wrong and bad politics.
If Farage is tempted to become more vocal on these issues – under the guise of more attacks on multiculturalism – it could rebound against his party. Counterintuitively, the very sort of terrorist incident that might cause the populists to say ‘We told you so’ could have the opposite effect of reinforcing the centre ground of politics.
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