Sitting in his mid-19th century mansion in the foothills west of Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen confesses to feeling a certain sense of satisfaction. For years, the leader of France's extreme right-wing National Front party railed against the influx of immigrants into France and Western Europe. But his ugly message never really caught fire. Now with the European economy under increasing pressure from a stubborn slump and rising unemployment, far-right groups in France, Germany, and Italy are forcing mainstream political parties to adopt a more hard-line stance on immigration and European unity. "I was a good prophet," says Le Pen.
Indeed, after years of howling in the wilderness, the far right is at last being heard throughout the Continent. In once-tolerant Italy, violent attacks against Arab and African immigrant workers have become commonplace. There and in Germany, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. France has seen fewer incidents, yet anti-immigrant fervor is strong.
MORE STRIDENT. In France, Le Pen's themes are likely to play a key role in the March legislative elections, where the conservatives are expected to seize the post of prime minister. More than likely, the National Front will not win more than a handful of seats, and the chances of its emerging as a power broker are slim. But Le Pen's success at making immigration a potentially winning issue is likely to prompt the mainstream conservatives, Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac and former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, to adopt more strident, nationalist tones.
In Germany, mainstream leaders are also watching the far right with unease. There the Republicaners, led by former ss officer Franz Schnhuber, are gaining strength. Schnhuber is exploiting the resentment of the thousands of newly unemployed against immigrants who get generous government financial support. While full-fledged neo-Nazis number only about 4,000, it's increasingly likely that the Republicaners could cross the 5% threshold to win parliamentary seats in Germany's next elections, expected by 1994.
To prevent further gains on the extreme right and limit the flood of hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers, Kohl's ruling coalition is close to reaching agreement on revising Germany's constitution to limit the numbers of economic refugees entering the country. Housing and welfare money for immigrants may be tightened.
FRINGE ELEMENTS. The far-right challenge could prove even more serious in Italy, where there's a power vacuum waiting to be filled. Italy's traditional ruling parties have been completely discredited, presenting big opportunities for neofascists such as the Movimento Sociale Italiano, which could win sizable votes in the next election. Another group, the Lega movement, has emerged as the largest political party in the affluent northern region by pushing the idea of creating a new autonomous region in Northern Italy. There are even fringe elements that want to send home the poor southerners who have migrated north.
Unless Europe's economy perks up, the right is likely to be a force to be reckoned with for years. Extremists could well throw monkey wrenches into efforts to proceed with greater political and monetary integration. So the leaders of Europe are praying for an economic revival. At this point, it seems that only a business recovery will be able to check the right-wing surge.