Far-right leaders vow to 'save Europe' at French gathering
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Representatives of Eurosceptic and far-right groups from Italy to Bulgaria gathered at the National Front party conference in Lyon at the weekend to warn France and Europe of a “neo-Ottoman” onslaught of Islam-preaching, benefit-stealing migrants.
Digging through the history books, Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), warned that “Arab armies plundered Lyon in 725 and are now busy doing the same in Iraq and Syria”.
Strache went on to blast Europe’s mainstream parties for, among other things, stoking “mass immigration, ideological terror, gay marriage and gender theory”.
The Austrian far-right leader was one of seven foreign politicians invited by the National Front (FN) leader, Marine Le Pen, to showcase her so-called “Europe of nations” – which she hopes to build on the ruins of an increasingly unpopular EU.
“Our Europe stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, not from Washington to Brussels,” she said, calling for closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and an end to “US domination”.
The weekend gathering capped a triumphant year for her party, which romped to victory in European elections with a whopping 25% of the vote.
Should France hold a presidential election next week, polls say Marine Le Pen would thrash her challengers in the first round of voting – but would likely come up short in a runoff vote.
Either way, analysts say there is a very real chance the FN, as it is known in France, may one day wield power in France.
Europe’s last defenders
Like the French far right, Le Pen’s foreign guests have thrived on the gloom and anxiety sweeping across Europe in the wake of the financial crisis.
Addressing the FN conference, they treated the audience to a mix of fear-mongering and unbridled optimism, claiming their impending victory would save Europe from the present apocalypse.
First to speak was Geert Wilders, the platinum blond leader of Dutch Islamophobic party PVV, who hailed Marine Le Pen as “France’s next president”.
“Just like you, we don’t want foreigners to tell us they are masters in our country. We say: kick the criminals, the jihadists, the illegal migrants out,” he told the entirely Caucasian audience to rapturous applause.
Wilders, who left without listening to his colleague’s speeches, blasted the “betrayal of our multicultural elites, who destroy our identities and traditions”.
He was followed by Jiri Janecek of the Czech Republic’s conservative Ok Strana, railing against “immigrants who take our jobs and cannot tolerate our culture”.
Next up, Krasimir Karakachanov of Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist VMRO delighted the crowd by declaring that “the symbol of Europe must be Joan of Arc, and not Conchita Wurst”, referring to Austria’s Eurovision-winning “bearded lady”.
There was praise from all sides for Putin’s Russia, and fierce condemnation of Western sanctions against Moscow.
“Why wage a commercial war on the main bulwark against the spread of barbaric, Islamic extremism?” asked Matteo Salvini, the new leader of Italy’s Northern League, sporting a T-shirt that read "Basta Euro" (Enough of the euro).
All cast themselves as the “last true defenders of Europe”, a role they are happy to share with Moscow, “our natural ally”.
The Russian saviour was represented by Andrey Isaev, a vice-president of the Russian Duma (the lower house of parliament) and the star guest in Lyon.
A member of Putin’s United Russia, Isaev said Europe had fallen prey to “bureaucrats in Brussels, who are little more than American dummies”.
His appearance underscored the growing ties between Moscow and the French far right.
Last week, the National Front was forced to confirm media reports it had secured a 9-million-euro loan from a Russian lender, claiming “no European bank will give us as much as a cent”.
Le Pen has made no secret of her respect for Putin, repeatedly slamming EU leaders for stoking a “new Cold War” with Russia.
She has been particularly critical of French President François Hollande’s decision to suspend delivery of two Mistral-class warships to Moscow, accusing the government of bowing to pressure from the US.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Isaev denied the Russian authorities had played a part in the FN’s deal with Moscow-based bank First Czech Russian Bank (FRCB).
But he confirmed that Putin and Le Pen agreed on a number of issues, including their analysis of the crisis in Ukraine.
“Moreover, FN values are close to Russian values,” he said. “We agree on the need to protect European traditions, including our Christian roots, family values, and national sovereignty.”
Like the other foreign guests in Lyon, Isaev urged the National Front to “show the way” and lead Europe’s nationalists and Eurosceptics to power.
Earlier this week, Le Pen appeared as one of five French nationals – and the only French politician – in Foreign Policy’s list of the 100 most influential figures of 2014.
The respected magazine said she had become “something of a standard-bearer for Europe’s far-right, Eurosceptical forces – a model for how they, too, can become serious political contenders.”
And yet for all her growing clout, Le Pen has been struggling to form a group at the European Parliament.
She was left smarting in May when the leader of Britain's surging UKIP party, Nigel Farage, spurned Le Pen’s repeated overtures, saying her party was still "prejudiced and anti-Semitic".
In Lyon, Italy's Salvini said he had no such qualms.
“I can only be proud if people describe me as a ‘Lepeniste’,” he told FRANCE 24, referring to the name given in France to Le Pen's supporters.
“People accuse my party of being even more extremist [than the FN], but the real racism and extremism today comes from the left,” he added, without explaining how.
Salvini’s decision to join forces with the French far right has raised eyebrows in Italy, where his Northern League is generally seen as an autonomist movement with racist elements – but not as a far-right party.
Inspired by Le Pen, the League’s youthful new leader has decided to “go it alone”, breaking with the party’s long-time ally, Silvio Berlusconi.
The numerous contingent of Italian journalists present in Lyon described Salvini’s move as a “risky gamble”.
“It’s hard to see how he can reconcile his autonomist party with Le Pen’s nationalist rhetoric,” said Loredana Pianta of TV channel La 7.
“Moreover, this association inevitably places his party firmly in the racist and xenophobic camp – which is still how Italians view Marine Le Pen’s National Front, despite her efforts to soften the party’s image.”
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