JEAN-MARIE Le Pen's surprise success in the first round of the French presidential elections must be seen in a larger context. There is not simply the growth of the far right throughout Europe, but also a larger process of class polarisation that has been going on for at least the last decade.
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 allowed the European Union (EU) to reunify the continent under the hegemony of liberal capitalism. Neo-liberal free market policies were driven through everywhere. In the East these were presented as 'shock therapy' designed to reconstruct the old Stalinist economies.
In the West they were justified as part of the preparations for European economic and monetary union, and the launch of the euro. The effect was to push up unemployment and increase poverty throughout Europe. These conditions provided fertile soil in which the far right could grow throughout Europe.
But there was polarisation to the left as well as to the right. Growing numbers of working class people turned to collective action to resist the neo-liberal juggernaut. Between 1992 and 1996 Germany experienced some of the most important industrial confrontations since the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. More spectacularly still, the French public sector strikes of November and December 1995 sparked off the biggest social rebellion against neo-liberalism that Western Europe has yet seen.
This wave of resistance swept social democratic parties back into office throughout Europe. Among the major countries, Italy was first in 1996. Then came Britain and France in 1997, and finally the victory of the Red-Green coalition in Germany in the autumn of 1998.
After the German elections the Financial Times ruefully announced 'Europe's Red October': 'The centre-left is back in power in 13 of the EU's 15 states.' At one level the Financial Times-and the European business establishment-needn't have worried. Brought to office by a rebellion against neo-liberalism, the new social democratic governments pressed ahead with yet more neo-liberal policies. Tony Blair in Britain and Costas Simitis in Greece were the most blatant about this.
But the others weren't far behind. Lionel Jospin in France privatised more than the preceding six governments combined. Gerhard Schršder in Germany ditched his left wing finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, and implemented tax reforms that opened German big business to the forces of global financial speculation.
If you want to understand why so many voters throughout Europe are either abstaining or looking rightwards, look no further than the ruling social democrats' failure to make a significant difference. The backlash started in Italy again with Silvio Berlusconi's victory last June. Jospin is the latest casualty. Schršder faces tough federal elections in the autumn. Unemployment in Germany, which he promised to cut, remains stuck stubbornly at around four million.
Blair might seem to be the exception. Undoubtedly he benefited in last year's general election from the Tories' deep unpopularity. But the turnout was astonishingly low, and New Labour is now under huge pressure to deliver better public services. It would be a mistake to see what is happening as just a swing of the pendulum back to the right.
The failure of official politics is pushing people to the right but also further to the left, beyond social democracy. Class polarisation continues. Across Europe we are seeing the growth of what in France is called the 'radical left' or the 'left of left'.
These are, for example, the 11 percent who voted in the first round of the French elections for openly revolutionary candidates. Many are involved in activist networks like ATTAC, the movement against international financial speculation. The Berlusconi government has presided over a massive political radicalisation. This started with the protests at the Genoa summit last July, but developed into a broader movement against capitalist globalisation and war, and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The Social Forums movement that spread out from Genoa last summer and autumn is a key force in this process, as is the Party of Communist Refoundation, which has moved sharply to the left in the past few years. The European Social Forum that will be held in Italy this coming autumn will be an important focus for the radical left throughout Europe. This doesn't mean we should be at all complacent about Le Pen's success or that of other fascists elsewhere in Europe.
But it is important to understand that the forces capable of taking on and defeating the far right by offering an alternative to neo-liberalism, racism, and war are beginning to take shape.