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Gary Younge
Appeasing racists won't see them off

And then again, maybe not. For with each passing day it looks as though things could get even worse. With each ministerial announcement here, it appears that the vital lessons of Le Pen's strong showing in the first round of the French presidential elections will prompt precisely the opposite response to the one that both we and indeed the French need.

For the results have not cured racial myopia here but exacerbated it. In short, the Labour party has decided that the best way to respond to fascism, and the racism that produces it, is not to confront it without equivocation but to pander to it without shame.

Blair's answer to Le Pen's triumph is not to trumpet the benefits of equality or inclusion or sing the praises of multiculturalism. He talks of "crime and social behaviour" and "immigration and asylum". Home Secretary David Blunkett yesterday went even further, referring to the risks of asylum seekers' children "swamping" local schools - a chilling echo of Margaret Thatcher's infamous "swamped by people of a different culture" comment before the 1979 election.

Of course Labour leaders preface all this by condemning Le Pen and the far-right British National party. They understand that racism, in its most crude form, is a "bad thing". The trouble is they have yet to discover that anti-racism, in its most principled form, is a "good thing". They do not like the bigotry in Le Pen's language, but like Thatcher, who saw off the National Front only to implement some of the most racist immigration and policing practices, they do not mind it in their own legislation. Their strategy is not to protect those targeted by organised racists, but to target them first: not eliminate racism, but to embrace it and enshrine it in law. Having rejected the man, they are now adopting his rhetoric.

There is method in their madness. They believe that by addressing anxieties about crime and immigration, they can "neutralise" the threat of a surge by a populist right. But it is madness nonetheless. For there are two principal flaws in trying to "neutralise" fascism.

The first is that it doesn't work. Every step you make in the direction of a racist agenda does not "neutralise" racists but emboldens them. They will always make better bigots than mainstream politicians, however spineless the latter may be, because they have had more practice and have fewer qualms of conscience.

For evidence look no further than France. French politicians spent the best part of a decade thinking they could neutralise Le Pen. In 1991 the Socialist premier, Edith Cresson, promised to "charter" planes to send back illegal immigrants. Not long after, Jacques Chirac complained that the "threshold of tolerance" for immigrants had been crossed and claimed French workers were going "mad" with the "noise and smell" of immigrants. Closer to home, since the disturbances in the north last year Blunkett has been talking tough on race, threatening citizenship classes and compulsory English as a response to rioting, even though most of the young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis involved were born here. The result of the most reactionary racial discourse for almost a decade is that the BNP may yet win council seats in Burnley and Oldham.

Le Pen's base in France is much the same as the BNP's in the north. The Front National in France topped the poll among the unemployed and blue-collar workers - the very people who Labour have most deeply disappointed here.

The second is that even if it did work it is immoral. Unlike taxation, funding public services or the EU, there is an overwhelming moral element to both fascism and racism that cannot be overlooked. You can no more meet fascism halfway than be a little bit pregnant. There must be some line in the sand beyond which a politician will not go in search of votes or advancement. It is not yet clear, from this Labour government, where that line is and whether, once drawn, it will stay put. But if they are not prepared to make a moral stand on an issue like this, at a time like this and with a majority of this size in a second term, then one wonders what precisely a Labour government is for.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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