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Europe Was Yesterday

Mabel Berezin is the Professor and Chair of Sociology at Cornell University, is a political sociologist whose work explores the intersection of political and cultural institutions with an emphasis on modern and contemporary Europe. She is the author of Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security, and Populism in the New Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Inter-war Italy (Cornell 1997), and editor with Martin Schain of Europe Without Borders: Re-mapping Territory, Citizenship and Identity in a Transnational Age (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Across the European continent, old and new political experiments seem to be stalling if not completely failing.  On October 7, the French Constitutional Council ruled that the law banning the burqa, the full body and facial covering that some Muslim women wear, is in accord with the letter and spirit of French law. French President Nicolas Sarkozy had called for a ban during his June 22 speech to Parliament, and it took a mere four months to translate his proposal into national law. During that same week in October, soixante huit met soixante deux as aging French protestors marched side to side with high school and college students to protest Sarkozy’s austerity measure that changed the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two.  A week later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a gathering of the youth members of the Christian Democratic Union party that Germany’s attempt to build a multicultural society had “failed, utterly failed.”  Although Merkel went on to say that immigrants were still welcome in Germany, the phrase “failed, utterly failed” resonated in Germany and across Europe.

October events in France and Germany suggest that twentieth century visions of socialism and social democracy are as challenged as twenty first century visions of post nationalism and multiculturalism are. National narcissism, collective anxiety, cultural conflict and financial insecurity have replaced universalistic visions of continental unity and social solidarity. Specifics vary from country to country. The current European mood is undeniably national and is eerily backward, rather than forward, looking.

The re-assertion of the national is in effect and practice not new.  National identity is alive and well—albeit in the interstices of the European project.  Right populist parties have been gaining political salience in Europe since the mid-1990s.  Right wing parties and Islamophobia grab headlines in the international media from print to blogs every time they emerge. However, historical memory is now so short that commentators forget that both right wing parties and anti-immigrant sentiment, now expressed specifically against Islam, have been waxing and waning at least since the mid-1990s in Europe.

What is new in the current European landscape is that Heads of State are leading the national identity charge; cultural conflicts in the past seemed to arise from below, whereas they are now seemingly descending from above. After all, both Sarkozy and Merkel are the leaders of their respective nation-states. This is a surprising development.  Post-war Europe prided itself on having learned the lessons of fascism, Nazism and ethnic nationalism. The last potential threat to European democracy, Communism, collapsed when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Two questions emerge from these observations:  why is this happening at all and why is it happening now? The answer to the first question has much to do with the rapid expansion of the European Union from the Maastrict Treaty in 1992 through currency consolidation through the failed constitution efforts between 2004 and 2007. The answer to the second question is the global financial crisis which has exacerbated and revealed fissures and cultural fault lines in the European project.

Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times is about the emergence of right populism in Europe.  Revisiting the book’s central claims provides a lens through which to view the cultural strife and broad based national yearnings that are emerging now across Europe. Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times argues that the accelerated process of Europeanization that included political, economic and cultural integration was the core trans-European context within which the right populism emerged.  Market liberalism—the Archimedean principle of the new European project—challenged the social safety nets that had been firmly put in place during the postwar period.

Populism, and its more respectable cousin national affirmation, and European integration gained momentum during the nineties.  If right populism was simply a response to increasing unemployment in various national states, then Europeanization should have provided an opening to the left.  As we know, just the opposite occurred.  The traditional European left has increasingly lost its voice in the years since 1992.  European socialist parties are often technocratic and euro-friendly, and more importantly, they are losing more elections than they are winning.  France and Germany, two major European players, have firmly established center-right governments.  The strikes and protests in France this fall against pension reform were against the French state.  The protests failed as the government passed its austere measures at the end of October.

France is an instructive case vis a vis the current ethnocentric turn in European politics and political rhetoric.  Illiberal Politics documents how the political positions of the French National Front and its leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, often intersected with public opinion and mainstream political policy.  Its focus is the years between 1997 and 2007—the period during which the National Front appeared to be a political threat. It is worth briefly revisiting that period in order to make sense of current French attitudes towards Islam, the Roma and national identity.

In the early 1980s, while groups such as SOS-Rascisme were organizing demonstrations against the National Front and the French media establishment was bemoaning Le Pen, the French state was designing laws that would seriously restrict immigration.  The National Front coined the slogan “Inherit it or merit it!” to describe the process of citizenship acquisition.   It mapped well on official policy, which is a fact that was conveniently ignored.  In June 1993, the French state revised the French Code of Nationality to require that the French-born children of immigrants formally request French citizenship instead of having it automatically granted at birth.  It also required that these new citizens engage in French cultural practices—integration and assimilation.  While the right may have publicized the issue of immigration early on, the policy practices in European states around immigration in the last thirty years do not map onto whether a government is left or right.

In spring 1998, the National Front shocked the French public and political establishment when it gained 15 percent of the votes in the regional elections.  Shocked that a xenophobic nationalist party could make such progress in France, the French state co-opted the lucky accident of France’s 1998 World Cup victory and the public euphoria that it produced.  Politicians pointed to Zinedine Zidane, the star soccer player who was the child of immigrants, as a sign that despite the National Front, France was an integrated and multicultural society.  The 1998 World Cup win is so ingrained in French political iconography that in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup, the National City Museum of Immigration History, located on the outskirts of Paris, launched an exhibit called “Go France!  Football and Immigration, Crossed Histories” to correspond with the games.  The exhibit celebrated the multi-ethnic and multi-racial history of French soccer.  The 2010 games were a disaster for the French on multiple levels.  Not only did the French team get eliminated in the first round but the multicultural team engaged in some very unsportsmanlike and very un-French behavior—some of the players went so far as to refuse to sing the national anthem.  This time the French president and an array of government ministers condemned the behavior of the team which, in contrast to 1998, represented the failure rather than the triumph of multiculturalism.

In 1998, the National Front was on the rise.  A year later, the party suffered an internal split and most analysts predicted a downward trajectory for Le Pen.  But the downward trend only applied to the National Front’s electoral possibilities, not to its ideas which were gaining wide acceptance.  The first round of the 2002 French presidential elections temporarily resurrected Le Pen.  Jacques Chirac, the center right President of the French Republic, and Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister, conducted a lack luster campaign primarily against each other.  France’s two round electoral system combined with two establishment candidates who were not far apart on many issues worked in Le Pen’s favor.  Record numbers of citizens stayed home.  Citizens who bothered to vote registered protest votes and spread their votes among fourteen candidates.  Voila!   Le Pen came in second place with 16.86 percent of the vote compared to Jospin’s 16.18 percent.  Le Pen went on to the second round.  His presence on the ballot returned Chirac to the presidency with 82percent of the vote.  In 2002, just about everyone, the media, the political science community, and the candidates themselves,  failed to observe that Le Pen’s ideas had been gaining strength—particularly his attacks on Europeanization, globalization and his defense of social solidarity and increased public security.

Between the 2002 and the 2007 Presidential election, Le Pen’s ideas on crime, immigration and national identity as well as Europe became a normal component of French public discussion.  In 2003 Sarkozy, the then Minister of the Interior, pushed an internal security law through the National Assembly that vastly increased the powers of the French police.  In the 2005 riots in the poor suburbs of Paris, Sarkozy enforced his tough image when he called the rioters “thugs” and threatened to “clean the neighborhoods with a Karcher”, a high speed German water hose.  During the same period, Sarkozy promoted the formation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith as a representative body for all Muslims, or rather Muslims who had integrated and were not potential terrorists.    In May 2005, the National Front, French civil society groups like ATTAC (Association for Taxation of Financial Transactions and citizen action) and some segments of the French Socialist party converged in their rejection of the European Constitution.  In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy detached Le Pen’s message from the messenger and ably defeated his Socialist rival, Ségelène Royal, to win the presidency.

The Presidential election was the high point of Sarkozy’s popularity in France.  According to a recent TNS Sofres poll, Sarkozy’s approval rating was 63 percent when he took office.  Today his approval rating is 26 percent.  Support for his presidency among French citizens began a downward slope less than four months after he took office and has never been higher than 41 percent since 2008.  Taking note of his growing unpopularity, Sarkozy initiated a conversation on French national identity in his June 2009 address to the combined parliament and congress.  He began with the financial crisis and government response to it, but then quickly moved on to France’s favorite bête noire—globalization.  He was soon peppering the speech with phrases such as “our common values,” “our common heritage,” and eventually arrived at the importance of separation of Church and State.  At that point in the speech, Sarkozy says that the burqa is “not welcome in France” as it is not a “religious sign”, but a sign of the “servitude” and “debasement” of women.  Estimates suggest that only 2000 Muslim women wear the burqa in France, but the ban would apply to women visitors also. As noted earlier, the French Constitutional Council upheld the legality of the law banning the burqa on the grounds that “concealing the face in public space” is “dangerous for public safety and security” ,and places women in a “situation of exclusion and inferiority” that is not in accord with the principles of “liberty and equality.”   Initiating the ban on burqa a year after, Sarkozy returned to his favorite issue—security.  He declared “a veritable war against drug dealers and delinquents.”   Poor Roma, or gypsies, were Sarkozy’s principle target due to some violence that had occurred at a squatter’s encampment.  By September, the French police were busy deporting groups of Roma to whichever eastern European nations would take them.

Sarkozy’s use of national identity as a tool of cultural integration led to the formation of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidarity Development.   In October 2009, the minister of the agency, Eric Besson, launched a national debate on “What does it mean to be French today?”   The national identity debate did not favorably affect Sarkozy’s approval ratings but instead unleashed a barrage of criticism from the left.  Critics accused Sarkozy of fanning the flames of cultural conflict.  They argued that the “national identity” conversation was reminiscent of the National Front’s “France First” and “Neither Left nor Right, French” slogans, and that it could bring the National Front back to political viability.   In preparation for spring 2010 regional elections, the National Front launched a “No to Islamification!” campaign that echoed the government discussion.  The Socialist Party was the big winner in the regional elections, but the National Front did better than expected, and is once more a force on the French political scene.

The French National Front will hold its party congress in mid-January.  Analysts expect that Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, will replace him as head of the party.  Marine Le Pen’s long term plan is to make the National Front sufficiently respectable so as to attain national rather than simply local offices.  Appearing regularly on French national television, Marine Le Pen is articulate and engaged in French political issues.  As a divorced mother of two, Marine Le Pen defines herself as an “ordinary French woman.”   Yet she is also a lawyer and has held several local elected offices.  In December, she set off a fury in the French and international media when she claimed that Muslims who kneeled to say their daily prayers on the street in certain neighborhoods of Paris evoked a “state of occupation.”  As the word “occupation” used in the French political sphere always suggests the German occupation, the press and public officials widely accused Marine Le Pen of comparing the French Muslims to the Nazis.  Rhetoric aside, Marine Le Pen and the National Front will be a force in the 2012 French Presidential elections.  Sarkozy’s approval ratings continue to be abysmally low as his “national identity” strategy did not make him more popular.  Meanwhile the French Socialist Party does not have a clear presidential candidate yet.  Dominique Reynié, an established French political analyst, concluded in Le Monde in December that “in 2012, the risk of the National Front is truly real.”

France is not alone in its retreat to national identity and the presence of a re-vitalized right.  Political events in the second half of 2010 do not augur well for the neo-liberal and cosmopolitan Europe that animated  political rhetoric as the European Union expanded in the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century.  On June 9, Geert Wilder’s Party of Freedom came in third place in the Dutch parliamentary elections.  Much of Wilder’s agenda focuses upon free market liberalism.  But his claim to fame is his campaign against Islam in the Netherlands.   Wilders and his party are now minority partners in the current Dutch coalition government.  Four days after the Dutch election, a Flemish nationalist party that wanted to secede from French speaking Belgium captured the largest portion of the votes in a parliamentary election.  On September 19, a Swedish right populist party, the Swedish Democrats, received 5.7percent of the vote that made the party eligible for a seat in the Congress.  The party’s leader Jimmie Åkesson is now a member of the Swedish Parliament.  The Swedish Democrats decorated their campaign mailings with blue and yellow flowers—the colors of the Swedish flag.  “Safety and Tradition” was their motto. “Give us Sweden back!” was their cri de coeur.

In late August, Thilo Sarrazin, a former German Social Democratic politician and member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank, published a book titled Germany Does Away with Itself.  In the book, he describes the danger of German decline if Islam takes over the country. To date the book has sold over a million copies in Germany.  Sarrazin was forced to resign from the Board of the Bundesbank.  Germany Does Away with Itself generated a heated and ongoing public debate on the meaning of German national identity in the 21st century.

By October 29, Jurgen Habermas, esteemed German political philosopher and advocate of transnational “constitutional patriotism”, wrote a poignant plea to his fellow German citizens, “Leadership and Leitkulture”, which also appeared as an Op-Ed in the New York Times.  The article goes over the Sarrazin affair, anti-Islam sentiment and Merkel’s comments about multiculturalism.  In the end, it is a plea for a responsible political leadership to develop in Europe.  Habermas admires President Obama whom he says has a “clear headed political vision.”  But the most telling part of the article occurs in the middle when Habermas in effect argues that we may have a “bad habit of stirring up political prejudices,” but we are not as bad as others.  He argues, “In Germany, at least, our government doesn’t, as in the Netherlands, have to rely on the support of a right-wing populist like Geert Wilders.  Unlike Switzerland, we don’t have a ban on building minarets.”

Illiberal Politics suggested that the significance of the right in some nation-states is that they serve to re-assert national identities and promote center-right political coalitions.  But Illiberal Politics did not anticipate the 2008 financial crisis which by spring 2010 had become a full blown European sovereign debt crisis.  The cultural conflicts and Islamophobia described in this article have unfolded against a European sovereign debt crisis that at various conjunctures has threatened to send the European Monetary Union, if not the entire European Union, into history. The first crisis occurred in March 2009 when Hungary seemed on the verge of financial collapse and the more widely publicized crisis came in May 2010 when the situation in Greece threatened to spread to Europe as a whole.  Angela Merkel, with the support of German public opinion, balked at bailing out less solvent EMU members.  PIGS was the unfortunate acronym used to describe Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—all of which were getting dangerously close to state bankruptcy.  The spring 2009 elections for the European Parliament were an important harbinger of political direction.  The center-right dominated, the left did extremely poorly, and far right politicians won seats.  As of today, it is not only the extreme right that is questioning a commitment to a neo-liberal Europe and urging a retreat to the nation.   The European sovereign debt crisis fans the flames of cultural conflict because it legitimizes nationalism by making it appear as a rational response to potential economic disaster.

In 2001, the late Tony Judt entitled a New York Times article, “Europe is One—Until Disaster Strikes.”  Judt was writing about the “mad cow” crisis and the contaminated beef that caused a deadly brain disease among those who were unfortunate enough to eat it.  That early crisis seems mild in contrast to the financial problems confronting Europe today.  The ever expanding European Union was a project of plenty – more nations, more people, more money, more regulations—not a project of scarcity.  This current global crisis, especially in European iterations, is a crisis of scarcity and contraction.  The potential consequences of scarcity are multiple but they highlight one of the central contradictions in the European project as it expanded in the last twenty years that theories and practices of europeanization, globalization, post-nationalism and “new world order” ideas failed to account for.

For better or worse, nation-states were the bed rock of pre-EU Europe.  Those nation-states institutionalized a form of practical security that lent collective emotional security to their citizens.  Political security was located in citizenship laws and internal and external defense ministries.  National social welfare systems produced economic security and social solidarity as a by-product.  Linguistic, educational and even religious policies created cultural security because they enforced assumptions, if not realities, of similarity and identity.

The European right was the first to label immigrants, Islam, market liberalism and Europeanization as security threats.  In the presence of plenty, the right seemed recidivist at best, racist at worse.  But exogenous security shocks made it possible for even mainstream politicians to resort to language and advocate policies that previously had been the exclusive domain of the right.  The shock of 9/11 and the subsequent Madrid and London subway bombings made it legitimate to argue that immigrant communities were dangerous.  The combined shocks of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the 2010 sovereign debt crisis made it easier to argue that some nations were more virtuous than others and undeserving of financial aid.  While no one would argue that the EU as a political institution will disappear any time soon, it is unclear what will happen to its monetary union.  Instead of the optimistic dream of a multicultural, united Europe, we can expect nostalgia politics and cultural conflict coupled improbably with free market enthusiasm. In short, the nation remains and at least for today, Europe was yesterday.