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Culture - a cover-up for xenophobia


In Europe culture has become a central issue in the debate on immigration. And this is no coincidence. Right-wings parties across the board have switched their rhetoric from racism to cultural difference.

FORUM/Lyon September 2000 The claim that cultural differences prevent refugees and immigrants from adjusting to Western society has helped the political far-right to disguise xenophobia as an acceptable point of view. According to the French politologue, Nonna Mayer, women are particularly susceptible to this type of propaganda.

Their culture is just too different from ours. or They cannot adapt themselves to our values.They are of course foreigners, i.e. refugees and immigrants, especially Muslims. Not only in Denmark, but in all of Europe, arguments based on cultural differences are being used to argue against the presence of refugees and immigrants. According to the French politologue, Nonna Mayer, this argument has become a cover for old-fashioned xenophobia all over Europe.

She has studied European right-wing extremist parties and public attitudes towards foreigners. Her conclusion is that openly racist viewpoints have long since been consigned to the dustbins of history. Instead, right-wing extremist parties use 'nicer' and more well-mannered arguments about the incompatibility of different cultures.

- There has been a movement away from traditional racism based on the idea that races are biologically different and unequal. Science, and especially genetic research, has debunked this theory, and today we live in a democratic society in which tolerance and respect for others is generally accepted. This has become the norm after Holocaust, and this is why people no longer claim that some races are inferior. Instead, they claim that some cultures are too different from ours and are therefore incompatible with our own values. However, the result is the same. Today people who don't care for foreigners oppose interrelationships - not between races, but between cultures, explains Nonna Mayer, who is an expert on European right-wing extremist parties at the state-financed Centre of Political Research (CEVIPOF) in Paris.

This movement towards cultural arguments is no mere coincidence; it is part of a conscious strategy on the part of right-wing extremist parties.

- Since 1968, right-wing extremist parties have used cultural arguments in an attempt not to frighten off voters with old-fashioned, aggressive polemics. This is obvious in France, where the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front National, has published a handbook for its party members. The book explains in a straightforward manner that one shouldn't use racist arguments, but cultural arguments. In other words, one shouldn't say that Pakis should be dumped into the ocean, but that their return trip should be organized. And one should say that Islam is a beautiful religion, but that it just doesn't belong in Europe.

- This is one of their tactics to deceive voters, and only the right-wing extremist parties themselves know what is behind the rhetoric. In the same way, right-wing extremist parties have made their defence of national or even local culture a central element in their campaigns. It is no coincidence that Jörg Haider has founded a local cultural institute in Carinthia, or that the Front National is attempting to promote Provençal culture in the southern French towns in which they enjoy the most support. This culture - in the form of a purely figurative culture in contrast to modern 'entartet' culture - is a recurrent element in right-wing extremist rhetoric.

This rhetorical change of policy has been fruitful. It is widely accepted by the population of Europe, as demonstrated not only by public debates, but also by political studies carried out by Nonna Mayer.

- Only eighteen percent of the French population agree with the statement that some races are superior to others. However, when confronted with statements such as "we no longer feel at home in our own country" and "there are too many immigrants", forty-nine percent of the population agree, according to a study from 1997. A simple 'yes' to one of these statements does not make the respondent a racist, but, as Nonna Mayer points out, a large proportion of the French population would agree with several of these statements. When placed on a scale from left to right, it is also clear that the farther to the right the respondent votes, the greater the number of these statements he agrees with.

Is it really a question of racism, then? It could be contended that cultural differences at times cause real friction, and that failed integration policies could provide people with objective reasons for being hostile to foreigners.

- I don't think that one can speak of racism. Racism is connected with a belief in the inequality of races, and that is not the case here. I would prefer to speak of ethnocentricity. The tendency to prefer one's own group (the 'in-group') to other groups (the 'out-groups') is present in all European countries, in fact it is perhaps one of the most distinct common characteristics of mankind. The out-group could be anyone, e.g. people in a neighbouring village. Hence the rejection of others can be seen as a relatively reliable and harmless attitude. In addition, ethnocentricity may be promoted by national and international events. However, it is still used as a scapegoat mechanism in which the frustrations created by social insecurity are aimed at foreigners.

This is similar to the growth of anti-Semitism in the 1930's. The more socially disadvantaged and poorly educated a group is, the more xenophobic it traditionally becomes. Yet Haider has come to power in an Austria with an unemployment rate of four percent, and in Denmark the public debate on refugees has taken a radical turn during a period of stable economic growth.

- Both in the Scandinavian countries and in for instance Belgium, one can speak of a kind of welfare chauvinism. There is no real threat of unemployment or social exclusion, but people have a diffuse feeling that the welfare state is under pressure. Therefore, people turn against the groups that appear to be increasing this pressure, and with whom they don't want to share their welfare. The discussion then turns to why we should pay for others. In France, the Front National has based its entire political programme on this, with its slogan of 'national preference'.

The purpose of 'national preference' is to reserve social benefits for citizens of French nationality. In the same way, the Danish parties Venstre ["Left" - Liberal Party] and Det Konservative Folkeparti [Conservative People's Party] wish to introduce criteria based on length of stay in Denmark for receiving certain social benefits. On paper, Danish and foreign nationals have equal access to benefits, but in practice refugees are all but excluded. Danish parties are following in Le Pen's footsteps, and this welfare chauvinism is without a doubt also a possible explanation of why ethnocentricity is slightly more prominent among women than among men.

- The difference between men and women is very small, but the latest studies show that about two-three percent more women than men express ethnocentric viewpoints. This is surprising because women usually represent more humanistic viewpoints than men. Yet women are also to a greater extent interested in maintaining the social welfare system. Women are more sceptical towards EU than men are, and it is often argued that this is because women perceive European integration as a threat to the welfare society. According to Mayer, this same mechanism is used towards foreigners whenever they are accused of sponging on our social welfare system.

The European Union also plays a role in the sudden burst of interest in national cultures.

- European integration and globalization create the fear that national cultures will be destroyed. National cultures are perceived to be under threat from outside forces, including the cultural industry of the United States. It is felt that there will be a cultural battle, and that one will have to go to war on a cultural level. With regard to immigrants, the fear of Islamic culture also plays a role. The appearance of a revolutionary Islam in the 1980's and 1990's - as seen in the revolution in Iran and the Islamic massacres in Algeria - has created a fear of Islam, and when young girls insist on wearing hidjab, it is seen as a sign that Islam is gaining ground as a culture. A group is seen behind the individual, and this group is defined negatively: they don't raise their children in the way we do, they don't share the same values, and they don't accept the equality of the sexes.

Right-wing extremist parties have succeeded in placing their own central issues at the heart of the public debate. Their defence of culture and the welfare state are merely Trojan horses to be exploited in order to promote their traditional right-wing extremist points of view.

- The competition from the extreme right has tempted moderate political parties to adopt some of the same viewpoints. For example, Jacques Chirac was overheard - before he became president -complaining of the 'smell from immigrant apartments'. A series of restrictions in refugee and immigrant policies have been implemented in European countries over the last few years. Yet, by adopting right-wing extremist points of view, traditional parties are legitimizing the extreme right, and there is a clear risk that this legitimization will benefit the extreme right in elections.

This has been the case in France, where the Front National over a number of years has annoyed established political parties by receiving a solid 15% of votes, despite attempts by moderate right-wing parties to regain votes through repeated restrictions on immigration legislation. Only the internal dissent and the dissolution of the Front National into two competing parties have stopped the right-wing extremist popular appeal to voters.

It is characteristic that during these months after the dissolution of the Front National and their subsequent defeat at EU elections, immigration disappeared from the political agenda in France. Even the new nationalist party, RPF, has not taken advantage of the dissolution of the Front National to promote itself as the new xenophobic party. Moderate right-wing politicians, who during their time in office implemented restrictions on immigration and asylum legislation, are now promoting giving residence permits to illegal immigrants and supporting immigration to counterbalance the declining French birth rate.

Right-wing extremist viewpoints are therefore more reminiscent of a brushwood fire than a forest fire, and Nonna Mayer doesn't think that there - in the long term - is any reason to fear a fascist revival in Europe. Although xenophobia still exists in the population, one can take comfort in the fact that it isn't acceptable to express it directly any longer. This represents a step away from racism, but not much of a step.

- Firstly, it is a positive sign that people have made old-fashioned racism a taboo. This is progress. Secondly, there are no signs that xenophobia is gaining ground in the long term. It flares up occasionally after various national and international events, but in the long term there is no noticeable growth. And thirdly, there isn't any growing support for other right-wing extremist ideas. Xenophobia is not accompanied by hostility towards homosexuals or ideological attacks on women's rights. On the contrary, tolerance towards homosexuals seems to be growing with every generation.

This is a decisive difference from the fascist outbursts in Europe of the 1930's. However, this does not excuse us from reflecting on the fact that right-wing extremists from Le Pen to Jörg Haider and Pia Kjærsgaard still have succeeded in placing xenophobia at the heart of the public debate.

Birthe Pedersen is a freelance journalist based in Lyon. She is a regular contributor to FORUM.

Translation: Britt Keson

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