Europe’s Fearful Natives

PARIS – A referendum in Switzerland forbids the construction of new minarets. Racial violence explodes in the southern Italian region of Calabria. An intense and controversial debate takes place in France on the issue of national identity. These events have little in common, yet they all point to a growing European trend.

More than ever before in recent decades, fear is becoming the dominant force in European politics. And it is not an abstract, undefined fear: it is above all the fear of the non-European “other,” perceived by a growing numbers of “white” Europeans as a threat to our European identities and ways of life, if not our physical security and jobs.

At the very center of these debates lie the issue of Islam and immigration. The success of Christopher Caldwell’s recent essay “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” is indicative of this growing fear of “Islamization” – a fear heightened by the destabilizing impact of economic hard times.

The case of France is interesting, because the country has fared slightly better than most in confronting the downturn, thanks to its well functioning welfare state. But the right is nervous that regional elections scheduled for two months from now could turn into a referendum on its rule. So the launch of a debate on national identity by President Nicolas Sarkozy is anything but accidental.