Populist politicians – mostly, although not entirely, from centre and extreme-Right parties – are seeking to win elections by mobilising voters against foreign criminals, ‘immigrant’ youth and the Roma. But this resort to xenophobia via crime comes at a high social cost.
Politicians who make use of divisive and reckless populism to gain votes, put post-war European democratic standards and values at risk. This was most dramatically shown in Italy, in November 2007, when, shameful, deportation policies, based on the collective punishment of all Romanian immigrants (read Roma), were introduced by a centre-left government. This followed the arrest of a Roma for the sexual assault and murder of Giovanna Reggiani, the 47-year-old wife of a navy captain whose body was found in a ditch near her home in Rome. But, in Switzerland, too, thanks to populist proposals advanced by the extremist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the notion of ‘collective punishment’ is on the agenda. The SVP believes that the entire family of a criminal under the age of 18 should be deported as soon as sentence has been passed. If such a law were passed, say civil libertarians, it would be the first such law in Europe since the Nazi practice of Sippenhaft – or kin liability – whereby relatives of criminals were held responsible for their crimes and punished equally.
Politicians’ calls for swift action and authoritarian measures (including deportations) to deal with ‘foreign crime’ has been accompanied by the production of electoral campaign materials incorporating racist images of dark and threatening aliens. The interplay between sensationalised media reporting on crime and the statements of populist politicians is another alarming trend. In one week, German TV channels broadcast images from a video capturing a brutal attack by two teenagers on an elderly man on the Munich metro. The Hesse CDU then sought to make this attack the dominant issue in the regional election and, in this, was directly supported by the mass-circulation Bild newspaper which featured frequent stories about ‘foreign’ repeat offenders with long criminal records.
In France, political manipulation of the media over issues of crime and punishment has been linked to the ruling L’Union pour un Mouvement Populaire’s (UMP) ‘Plan Banlieues’. French President and UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of cynically manipulating the police and the media for political gain in the run-up to the March 2008 municipal elections (for city mayors and municipal councillors in France’s 100 departments). A few weeks before the elections, thousands of riot police in armoured vans invaded housing estates in the Paris suburbs in order to round-up the ‘ringleaders’ of the November 2007 disturbances that started in Villiers-le-Bel after the death of two teenagers in disputed circumstances involving the police. The media were tipped off about the raids in advance and accompanied the police on this military-style enterprise. As images from the police raids were broadcast repeatedly on television, opposition parties asked whether the rendering of justice had been degraded into a theatrical ‘security spectacle’.
But examination of electoral issues also reveals something far more encouraging, that the resort to tactical populism has spurned a new resistance. In Rome, it was the Jewish community, utilising the slogan ‘one man guilty, not a whole people’, who mobilised via the EveryOne Group to oppose the climate of anti-Roma hatred. In Switzerland, racist images deployed by the Swiss People’s Party in its election campaign (a poster, in cartoon form, depicted three white sheep standing on a Swiss flag, with one of the sheep kicking out a black sheep with a flick of its back legs) gave rise to the broad-front politics of the Black Sheep Committee. Meanwhile, in France, young people of immigrant descent living in the neglected and run-down banlieues are defending themselves from demonisation and criminalisation. Truth and Justice was formed to defend those arrested, counter police mis-information and ensure that the perspectives of the youth of Villiers-le-Bel inform the media debate.