The Ugly Europeans.

The Ugly Europeans.

The Ugly Europeans.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 26 2002 10:49 AM

The Ugly Europeans

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jörg Haider, and other xenophobes.

Illustration by Charlie Powell
Filip Dewinter, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Pim Fortuyn

After Sept. 11, many observers predicted that the ugly side of the American character would soon reveal itself. Xenophobia and nativism would flourish. Ominous reports of widespread violence against Arab-Americans would surface. A few hysterical doomsayers worried that it was only a matter of time before Muslims would be placed in internment camps. Despite those fears, none of the Ugly American predictions came to pass. Instead, 9/11 cemented an altogether different phenomenon: Ugly Europeanism.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's strong showing in the French presidential election is only the latest in a string of successes by anti-Muslim political parties across the Continent. Only two weeks after Sept. 11, Hamburg—the most liberal state in Germany—elected an anti-foreigner candidate nicknamed "Judge Merciless" to the state parliament. In November, Denmark's anti-Muslim party, the Danish People's Party, received 12 percent of the vote, up from 7 percent three years earlier. Then in March, the party of the Netherlands' Pim Fortuyn, a zero-immigration candidate who says "the Netherlands is full," reaped 35 percent of the vote in Rotterdam, making it the most popular party in the country's second-largest city. A few weeks later, the Popular Party, which urges a "special integration program" for African immigrants because of their "propensity for violence," joined Portugal's new governing coalition. And this week, Le Pen.

Granted, the Ugly Europeans are not purely a post-9/11 phenomenon. The Freedom Party of Austria's Jörg Haider—who came to international prominence in 2000—is a fellow traveler, as is Belgium's Vlaams Blok, which took a third of the vote in Belgium's second-largest city that same year. (The leader of Vlaams Blok, a Flemish nationalist party that wants to forcibly expel all unemployed non-European immigrants, said he and Le Pen were "brothers in arms.") And the Ugly Europeans' anti-Muslim tactics predate the terrorist attacks. In 2000, for example, an anti-racism poster picturing a black child and the caption "When I become white, I'll be a schoolteacher" prompted the Danish People's Party to counter with its own anti-welfare poster: a picture of a white homeless man with the caption "When I become Muslim, I'll have a house."

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But the Ugly Europeans accelerated their anti-Muslim rhetoric in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and they found a newly receptive audience. Anti-Muslim sentiment was already widespread in Europe, but 9/11 reinforced the Ugly Europeans' bigoted message: Muslims cause crime. Muslims cause unrest. Muslims must go. The effect was immediate: The terrorist attacks and the discovery that Hamburg was a haven of al-Qaida activity gave Judge Merciless (real name: Ronald Schill)—and his attacks on "imported unemployment and imported crime" from Muslim countries—a more than 5 percent bump in the polls. The anti-Muslim electoral wave had begun.

Much of what the Ugly Europeans propose isn't out of the mainstream of American political debate: Get tough on crime, promote Christian family values, reform the welfare state, curtail immigration. But the Ugly Europeans' policy inclinations on all those issues stem not from political ideology but from prejudice. How to get tough on crime? Get rid of the Muslim immigrants who are causing it. Why reform the welfare state? Because the Muslims are sucking us dry. Why promote Christian values? Because the Muslim invaders threaten to drown out our faith. Why curtail immigration? Because Muslims cannot assimilate into Western European cultures.

The Ugly European viewpoint stems from an exclusionary ethnocentric nationalism, summed up by Le Pen's slogan "France for the French," Haider's slogan "Austria for the Austrians," and Vlaams Blok's slogan "Our Own People First." Muslims from North Africa cannot assimilate even if they want to. Pia Kjaersgaard, the housewife leader of the Danish People's Party, wants the Muslims in Denmark to "go home": "They must not be allowed to integrate into Danish society." Filip Dewinter of Belgium's Vlaams Blok agrees: "We must stop the Islamic invasion," he told the New York TimesMagazine. "I think it's, in fact, impossible to assimilate in our country if you are of Islamic belief." During a protest of a plan to open a center for foreign asylum-seekers in his hometown of Antwerp, Dewinter proclaimed, "Antwerp is not a garbage can." In an effort to prevent Muslim (and perhaps Jewish) assimilation in France, the mayor of Marignane, who is a member of Le Pen's National Front, eliminated the option for a non-pork lunch when pork was on the menu at public school cafeterias. The clear message: We don't want your children to eat with our children.

Ugly Europeans are adamantly opposed to multicultural, multiethnic societies, and they employ a neat rhetorical trick: framing their racist anti-Muslim sentiment as a defense of the multicultural value of diversity—a way to protect their own national culture, which they see as threatened. (The Netherlands' Fortuyn, in a similar bit of ideological gymnastics, justifies his intolerance for Muslims by saying that Muslims threaten the Netherlands' vaunted reputation for tolerance.) They're fiercely opposed to the European Union, which they see as leveling the distinctions among the Continent's distinct nations. And most assail America for its globalizing culture and its multiethnic society.

In this, ironically, the Ugly Europeans share more than a little in common with the Islamic extremism that has propelled them to new heights of popularity. They may not be terrorists and murderers, but their separatist agenda is familiar: a belief that Christians and Muslims cannot commingle; that the infidel invaders must be expelled to ensure their countries' self-preservation; and a backward-looking celebration of an empire long, long gone.