Europe and Its Discontents

LONDON: Waves of street protests by French farmers, fishermen and truck drivers against surging fuel prices dominate television and newspapers. If Europe is moving into an autumn and winter of discontent, however, it is not so much because French truckers are blockading oil refineries in France, as because some key political issues on the European agenda seem to be getting out of hand and out of control, especially in Germany and Britain.

In one sense, indeed, the French protests are reassuringly familiar. Street demonstrations (or, as the French say: Amanif”) are a traditional part of the political vocabulary in France, and these seem to be evolving along customary lines. On this occasion, the socialist government of Lionel Jospin belatedly tried to summon a bit more firmness than usual, but otherwise it’s a familiar story: alarming to foreigners, but not very surprising or disturbing to the French.

Recent events in Germany, by contrast, are less traditional and more worrying. First, there is the spate of neo-Nazi attacks on foreigners, which hit the headlines again recently when three young skinheads were convicted and sentenced for killing a black Mozambican man. In one sense, this is not a new phenomenon. Over the past decade 90 people died in anti-immigrant attacks in Germany; and these attacks appear to be directly related, first to the collapse of the East German economy after re-unification, and second to a huge wave of refugees, especially from the Balkans.

Yet the government is obviously worried by the upsurge of xenophobia and neo-Nazi violence. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been actively campaigning for tougher measures by police and the courts, and has called on the German people to have the courage to stand up against anti-foreigner racism.