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Europe's populist parties feed off growing sense of crisis

By Tim Lister, CNN
updated 11:57 PM EST, Mon November 7, 2011
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian populist Freedom Party (FPO), was re-elected its president on June 18 in Graz.
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian populist Freedom Party (FPO), was re-elected its president on June 18 in Graz.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Populist movements in Europe have a large online following
  • Supporters rail against multiculturalism and Islamic extremism
  • Some parties compete in elections with growing success

(CNN) -- They distrust government and the justice system as well as Europe's political elite.

They rail against multiculturalism and believe their national identity is being swamped by immigration and their culture strangled by Islam. They are implacably hostile to "big money" -- banks and other financial institutions. They are getting organized, online and off, and thriving amid Europe's eurozone crisis.

"They" are populist groups and parties from Scandinavia to Hungary. Some compete in elections with growing success, picking up protest votes that yield seats in government and the European Parliament.

Others are street movements like the English Defense League and Bloc Identitaire in France that eschew the political process. But they have one thing in common: a growing following through social media.

A new survey by the think tank Demos found that 14 prominent populist movements in Europe had 436,000 Facebook followers between them -- with the far-right British National Party and the Austrian Freedom Party each having more than 80,000. Of those followers, 32% were younger than 21.

Demos asked supporters of these populist groups on Facebook to respond to a survey -- and more than 12,000 did.

The survey found the supporters were predominantly young men, more likely to take part in protests than other groups and highly disillusioned with mainstream politics. Only 20% of these online supporters trusted their national governments. And the vast majority listed immigration and Islamic extremism as their greatest concerns.

Significantly, while a majority of those surveyed disavowed violence, 26% regarded it as "acceptable to achieve the right outcome." Among followers of Bloc Identitaire in France and CasaPound Italia in Italy, the proportion rose to well over 40%.

CasaPound is named after American poet Ezra Pound, who supported dictator Benito Mussolini, and its leader told the Guardian newspaper this week that the fascist leader was the group's "point of reference."

Several supporters of Bloc Identitaire last month staged a "white die-in" on the streets of Dijon as a protest against perceived inaction by the authorities after the murder of a white teenager.

This mind-set has already led to a violent response among a tiny minority, as the Norway massacre earlier this year -- and admitted to by suspect Anders Breivik -- showed. Breivik purportedly authored a 1,500-page manifesto critical of Muslim immigration and European liberalism. The sort of grievances that motivated Breivik are echoed throughout the Demos survey.

One supporter of the English Defense League wrote: "No way can a Muslim race bring their rules to our country." Another respondent identifying himself as a supporter of the Dansk Folkeparti, which has 25 seats in the Danish parliament, reflected a view widely held among respondents: "The foreigners are slowly suffocating our lovely country. They have all these children and raise them so badly that in three or four generations there'll be no ... well-behaved children at all."

A supporter of the German group Die Freiheit said his priorities were "human rights...against Islamisation of Europe and intolerance by Turkish and Arabic immigrants towards gays and Jews," an unusual twist on the traditional phobias of the far right.

By country, supporters of the French National Front and Bloc Identitaire were the most concerned about immigration, while followers of the Dutch Freedom Party were the most likely to rate Islamic extremism among their top concerns. The party, part of the current coalition government in the Netherlands, is led by Geert Wilders, who has described Islam as a 'fascist' religion.

While some respondents were openly racist, others were more concerned that Muslim immigrants avoided assimilation. "Prevent the oppression of Islamic women," wrote one Swedish respondent, "by banning the burqa in public places."

Many respondents share a loathing of what they see as a corrupt and complacent political class. A Facebook follower of the French National Front lamented "the desperate lies of the MPs, the comfortable way in which they live while the French face a multitude of problems such as insecurity, mass immigration..."

A supporter of the Northern League in Italy, which has a significant presence in the national and regional assemblies, commented "I hate politicians; they are all disgusting, especially when they get to the armchair of power."

This sentiment feeds into a gloomy assessment of Europe's future among followers of these populist movements. Asked whether their country was on the right track, supporters of French, British, German and Belgian groups were the most downbeat, with fewer than 10% optimistic about the future.

Increasingly, the sentiment appears to be feeding growing hostility toward the European Union. Large majorities of supporters in all but one group (the exception being the Northern League in Italy) regard the EU as a waste of money, with inadequate control over its external borders, and hold it responsible for a loss of cultural identity.

Demos says the survey shows how the convergence of virtual and real-world political activity "is the way millions of people -- especially young people -- relate to politics in the 21st century." The challenge to European politicians, as they lurch from one crisis summit to the next, is to ensure this alienated generation does not desert civic society altogether.

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