They are against the EU, the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe and open borders. They don’t like to be called extremists. They want to be called radicals. They can command up to a third of the votes in their countries.
Last weekend they came to one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe - Romania.
Who are they and what did they say?
Sinaia. Mountain resort and seat of the Romanian royal palace. In a packed conference hall of the lush 1912 casino, a cheering crowd watches dazzled in the dark as a giant screen flashes a countdown from ten to zero. A soundtrack of classical strings and electric guitars blasts out. The besuited crowd stands and claps in a staging resembling a product launch for a new home appliance.
Then Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Front, appears to give the keynote speech.
Nemesis of the European Union establishment, Le Pen is against NATO, against the EU and against the International Monetary Fund - the three international institutions arguably critical in securing Romania’s stability over the last 15 years.
Her presence seems out of place in a country where an ex-European Commissioner is now Prime Minister, an ethnic German is President and the country’s Anti-Corruption Department has locked up hundreds of the nation’s elite for bribery and fraud. Superficially, the country is a symbol of European Union values in action: transparency, technocracy and multiculturalism.
So what message can Le Pen and her nationalist colleagues in Europe’s Eurosceptic political family have for Romania?
In 2013, Marine Le Pen’s father Jean Marie, the former leader of the National Front, was fined 5,000 Euro by a Paris Court for implying Romanians were “naturally” inclined to steal.
But his daughter’s first words to a Romanian audience in Sinaia are admiration for a figure she calls one of the world’s greatest poets - late 19th century Romantic Mihai Eminescu - a Romanian.
She adds that “we know very well that not all Romanians or Roma are criminals” - not exactly an unqualified message of support for her hosts.
Members of her political movement in the European Parliament - the Europe of Nations and Liberty - have attacked Romanians in the past, but the group’s delegates here see a potential ally in the fight against the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe - and they are oozing charm.
Geert Wilders, the firebrand president of the anti-EU Dutch Freedom Party, suggested in 2009 that Romania and Bulgaria should be chucked out of the EU, but his party’s representative at this conference, Markus De Graaff states: “We would love to do trade with Romania and let our economies grow together - for Bucharest [to be] a beautiful and prosperous city - as the Paris of the East again.”
This receives cheers from the locals.
The movement is selling a vision where countries can freely trade with one another inside Europe, but each can decide its own economic path. The ideal is that independence means cash.
De Graaff adds: “We want to be in charge of our own country again - more freedom and prosperity - our Europe - a Europe of nations.”
His final words to the audience are in Romanian. They are taken from the national anthem.
“Viața-n libertate ori moarte!”
Life in liberty or death!
Founder of the Czech Republic’s Movement of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) Tomio Okamura is a soft-spoken self-made entrepreneur with a dazzling back-story.
From a Czech mother and a Japanese-Korean father, he is a former dustman, ex-popcorn seller, and a judge on the Czech version of reality TV show Dragon’s Den, where experts interrogate members of the public about their business ideas - then finance their dreams, or crush them. The 43 year-old has also written a book on Japanese cooking.
These are excerpts from his speech at the conference in Sinaia:
“We are at war. More and more [terrorist] attacks are being planned. Islamic radicals are being dispersed throughout the world and they begin to implement the next stage of the Islamic vision… The objective to conquer Europe remains… Muslim communities are a crucial security risk. It is important to create conditions where radical Muslims leave the country… Islam is incompatible with freedom and democracy and the European concept of human rights. The European Commission should analyze the Islamic ideology defining the points in which Islam is incompatible with European law and identify Islam as an anti-democratic and aggressive ideology.”
Another speaker, 59 year-old Johannes Huebner of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), adds that: “we have an invasion from the Islamic world - but also [from] the black African world - where 450 million people are waiting to migrate to Europe.”
Meanwhile his Dutch colleague Markus De Graaff states that, while recent refugees from crises in North Africa and the Middle East have gone to well-organised shelters, those others coming via illegal means to Europe are 'fortune seekers and Jihadists':“The first group drain our financial resources, driving up taxes and public expenditures and unemployment…the second group are Jihadists - the frontline of Islamic warriors. Their goal is to conquer Europe for Islam… and the first group support the second.”
As a caveat, Huebner - like many others in the conference - stresses that he is not against these people. “I can understand it,” he says. “If I was born in a slum in Freetown or Lagos or Kinshasa - I would love to come to Austria or Germany or Sweden or Bucharest or Sinaia - it is a good place.”
The message is that Muslims should stay in their own countries, Europe should end the Schengen space of free movement and each country should secure its own borders - and not let any more Muslims through.
On this issue, Marine Le Pen is careful. She has stated she is not against races, but against criminals and not anti-Islam, but against the Islamisation of Europe. She indirectly targets Islamic culture. For example, she calls the possibility of Turkey entering the EU “a disaster” and says Turkey’s attitude to Daesh (ISIS) is “more than suspect”.
At the conference she does not accuse anyone in the EU of allowing the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, but instead states “EU ideology played a criminal role”.
Europe’s far right has been energized by this month’s rejection in the Netherlands in a referendum on whether to allow the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement.
This was seen as a victory for the country’s Eurosceptic and anti-Muslim Freedom Party, which opposed the deal - and a setback for Brussels.
In June, Britain will vote on whether to leave or remain in the EU. A negative vote for Brussels could trigger a collapse of the European Union project.
Le Pen confirms that her group wants referendums in each state on whether to stick with the EU.
“I hope the French will not wait too long for a similar opportunity,” she says.
The talk is now of the Netherlands pushing for a referendum - a so-called Nexit, which could be followed by Denmark (Dexit) or Sweden (Swexit) - a pattern which becomes harder to maintain when the neologisms turn to countries beginning with a vowel - such as Italy and Austria.
Even if Brexit does not happen, the media attention this will bring will inspire other far right groups to push for such a plebiscite in their own countries.
But democracy is not a science. Sometimes voters simply cast a vote to reject a decision - regardless of its content - due to their own disaffection towards their own situation in life.
Whatever the public’s motivation, ‘referendums’ are a brilliant weapon for these parties, as they come with the justification of being the result of the will of the people. And the delegates here make this point again and again.
Le Pen wants European nations to “take the destiny in their own hands and have a collaboration between Europeans”. She calls the European Union an “excellent failure that destroys hope and development”, and that its elite believes "treaties are more important than people".
Romania has over two million people working in the EU, is now seeing growth of 3.6 per cent, primarily due to trade and investment from the bloc, and its people still overwhelmingly support the EU and NATO. But Le Pen's message is: this is not enough.
“Romania is a big country with a high potential and deserves more,” she says.
She compares the EU to the USSR. The intention here is to convince Romania that they have moved from being at the mercy of one superstate only to find themselves under the influence of another.
This view is backed by Janice Atkinson, a former-Conservative and UK Independence Party (UKIP) politician, who sends a message to the crowd arguing: “Romania has not shaken off the shackles of communism only to have them reimposed by the EU.” This is greeted by cheering.
But Atkinson’s own past includes targeting of Romanians for political gain. As a UKIP spokesperson, she sent out a press release in 2014 to constituents stating that "Ninety per cent of ATM [cash machine] crime is committed by Romanian gangs and drug and gun crime is mainly run by Eastern Europeans.”
This event is organised by 40 year-old Romanian MEP Laurentiu Rebega, a former member of the Conservative Party - a tiny political movement which uses its media influence to form coalitions with larger parties to get its members into powerful positions.
A former agricultural consultant and ex-vicepresident of the country council of Prahova, Rebega is now VP of the Europe of Nations and Freedom.
In a stirring speech, he reiterates the message - seemingly directed at the media - that: “We are not extremists… we are not the ones who plant bombs. They are not due to Laurentiu Rebega or Marine Le Pen.”
Although his main argument seems to be ‘don’t call us extremist because we are not killing anyone’ he sends out a warning - that if forces in Europe try to eliminate his group, this will create a path for real right-wing extremists who will not respect the rule of law.
Instead he argues that his fellow members are ‘radicals’.
Rebega has the impassioned diction, clear message and a few rhetorical flourishes - repetition, brevity, the constant switch between fear and hope - that are the oratorial arsenal of Le Pen herself. The French politician seems to have faith in him as an ambassador of the nationalist cause to the Romanian people. But right now he seems to be a one-man army.
The right in Romania is divided. There are many new parties with a mix of Christian, Anti-Islamic, Nationalistic, and anti-EU messages. Some overtly invoke the symbols and ideology of Romania’s 1930s Fascist party the Legionnaires, others just seize its platform with the usual carefree attitude the country’s elite has towards plagiarism.
Recently members of the country’s larger parties have adopted elements of far-right rhetoric in their own speeches, especially against Muslims. Senior politicians and intellectuals have warned that Syrian refugees and their ‘Islamic’ culture will threaten the Orthodox Christian values of Romania.
The Romanian organiser of this event - MEP Laurentiu Rebega - is an independent backed up by only a small political movement. The audience at the conference is not swarmed with admirers. They include a few Le Pen groupies, a couple who have come back to Romania from Canada because there “were too many Muslims there”, ex-soldiers and some kids who seem to be from the local high school. Their loyalty to the cause is not too evident.
Outside the casino, when Marine Le Pen drives up in a mini motorcade, there are a hundred people - carrying just as many Romanian flags - who have been choreographed to form a crescent to welcome her.
One teenager, his head shaved on both sides, is brandishing the flag of ‘Europe of the Nations’ - a blue eagle on a white background, but he is also wearing a sweatshirt with the word ‘CRMINAL!’
As the French MEP exits her car, there are a few shouts of “Marine! Marine!”
But only about four or five.
She is not mobbed.
This is not The Beatles at Shea Stadium.
When I was interviewing a European Ambassador to Romania in his Embassy many years ago, he led me to a corner of his office, and said: “And now I would like to show you my awards.”
On a table were dozens of framed diplomas, winged plastic statues, and thick brass medals, which he had received since heading up the mission.
But he was not bragging about his achievements. Instead - he was confused.
“I don’t understand,” he told me. “I can’t go anywhere in Romania, without someone giving me an award.”
During this event, Le Pen becomes the target of this national trait.
At the climax, Romanian General Mircea Chelaru - who was last year condemned to a suspended sentence on corruption charges - and local academic Dr Victor Craciun present to Marine Le Pen a Doctorate Honoris Causa, the medal of Eminescu-Iorga, along with another award, and a plastic Romanian flag adorned with a Dacian wolf. The 80 year-old Craciun even cheekily plants a kiss on Le Pen’s face.
Although she is clearly overloaded, she doesn’t put any of the awards down - perhaps fearful she will offend someone. Then she drops a case on the floor and a medal skips across the stage.
I feel sorry for her.
“I am not a victim,” says communication specialist Monica from Bucharest, “but a person was has survived and can have a normal and healthy life.”
Interview by Michael Bird. Image by Andrei Cotrut
Smart, confident and speaking in perfect English, 34-year old Monica talks about her background and achievements.
She couches information in amusing and profound anecdotes - locking in on eye contact, seeking a route to empathy.
It feels as though she is outlining her experiences for a job interview for her profession as a communication specialist.
Instead she is recounting how she has lived with HIV and the medication to suppress the virus for 14 years.
“I was 19," she says. "Glands were swollen in the back of my neck. It was like two little horns raised up on the skin. My mother and father took me to the doctor, who told me ‘You might have love bites’.”
“I took some more tests in hospital. The specialists suspected I had lymphoma cancer. Then I found out I was HIV positive.
“I don’t know how I contracted disease - probably from sex. When I was 18, it was an experimental year. I had left school and taken time out to pass the exams for the University. I was clubbing and had one night stands and boyfriends for no longer than three months. I knew nothing about their background. I did not ask.
"I never thought that HIV could be that close to me. At that time, I knew about HIV only from movies.
“Who gave me the disease? I could not say it was this guy or that guy. I had an idea, but I never wanted to know. I am not sure why.
“When I found out, I had a reaction I could not explain to myself. I was laughing. I was OK with it.
“It’s really crazy.”
She bows her head and lets out a laugh. “For me then, I think I just wanted to get sick.
“From that time, I remember little - only images of my mother and father, together we were watching comedies on TV and someone mentioned HIV and I started to cry. I do not remember my state of mind. I wanted to forget and I forgot."
"You know who your friends are"
“My friends were shocked, but appreciated my honesty. I wanted to tell them - this is not defining me: I am not HIV. I am the same person. I found out who were my friends and who were not. That was the best thing that happened to me.”
At University, Monica enrolled in journalism and philosophy.
“Before I memorized the words in books on philosophy, but did not understand what they meant. After my experience with HIV, I realized that philosophy could help. It made me step forward. I liked Descartes. The idea of the duality. That there are good parts and bad parts to a person - and you cannot separate them. We are the whole. This explained my attitude, my thinking and my beliefs.”
After University, Monica worked in a company importing construction materials to Romania, rising from a secretary to human resources director.
“While working there, I had trouble sleeping. My medication for the virus, which I took in the evenings, caused me insomnia and I never came to work at nine o’clock. This was unacceptable for my manager.
“At the end I had a misunderstanding with the boss over money. I was kept on a salary that was too low and the executive director told me if I wanted more, I could find another job.
“Before I left, I told him:
‘You want to know why I didn’t come into work on time? I have HIV.’
“He sat back in his chair, open-mouthed, saying:
‘Really? That was why you were late?’
"I left him like that. I didn’t care any more.”
She then took on a job in communications in an EU-funded project training Roma mediators between communities and public authorities.
“I was ignorant. I had an attitude that discriminated against the Roma, such as assuming someone is a bad guy because they are a Roma - or calling someone a gypsy. I started to question myself. Is this my attitude or one I have taken from my friends and my parents? This is not someone I want to be. But it was the same with understanding people’s prejudices against my HIV.
“My life changed completely and I became a communications specialist, implementing campaigns and organizing events. I was open with everyone about my virus. They could not believe it. But their reaction was ‘OK - you did not choose this thing, so why should you be blamed?’”
Monica soon staked out a career in projects for the Ministry of Education, teacher training and working for international companies.
"I had to defend my dignity"
“In one job at an Austrian branch of a consulting firm, I told my boss I was HIV positive. She called the doctor of the firm who told her it would not affect my work or my colleagues, and that I can do the job. But still my boss wanted me out of the office. Even though she had no real reason, she fired me.
"I started a lawsuit. The way she fired me was abusive. Her lawyer tried to find errors in my work - a reason to sack me. They even called my other employers to inquire about my work. The lasted more than four months. But this did not go further because we reached a financial settlement.
“I had the power to go through all this and do something to defend my dignity. The best part of this experience is that afterwards, I started to work on the same projects I was working on in the company, but this time in the beneficiary’s team and in a management role.
“That’s my life. Bad things happen to me for being open about my status, but the reward is much more than I could ever think about."
"For some boyfriends it was hard to accept, for others not"
“It was not difficult with boyfriends. I was open all the time and they knew from the start. For some it was hard to accept, for others it wasn’t so hard. They had to go through an entire process in which they analyze their feelings against stereotypes versus new information about the virus.
"They accepted me. I was fortunate. Now I am in the process of divorcing, because of problems in relationships - as anyone else can have - not because of my HIV status.
“With one boyfriend, the condom broke and I became pregnant. Because of the medicine at that time, I could not go full-term. The baby died at two months and the doctor had to induce the fetus.
"I was at risk of having an infection and I was referred to a gynecologist in a private hospital. But the doctor did not have time for me until a week later. Then she made me wait four hours in her reception room. After that she said she could not operate on me because: ‘we do not have instruments for people like you’.
“‘What can I do now?’ I thought. Someone has to help me. I am paying for this. I started to cry. I went home. Eventually I went to Giulesti Maternity Hospital in Bucharest.
“All the nurses knew some girl was coming who was HIV positive. Each one looking around the door and then talking with one another, saying - ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s her, that’s the girl’.
‘Why do you have to be like this?’ I thought. ‘Am I not a person in need?’
Monica has now taken a new type of medication, which allows her to become pregnant.
“I still want children,” she says. “The chances of the child having HIV are close to zero, as long as I do not breast-feed. I have the right medication to have a pregnancy - but I am divorcing now, so I will postpone this.”
"I do not have regrets"
Monica's plan is to become more involved in drug education, to communicate to clubbers the dangers of new drugs made from synthetic stimulants.
“Why do I want to do this? Because drugs really helped me. I needed to talk about my problems. After I knew about my HIV, I started taking MDMA and smoking weed. I was freely talking about my HIV with everyone who asked me about the virus. I wanted them to know what happened to me and share more information about the virus and tell them that it was here next to them. It helped me come to terms with the issue.
"There are positive aspects to pure drugs. But not taking them forever. Not taking them every day.”
Monica says the virus has allowed her to educate her friends and her colleagues how it is possible to forge a satisfying career despite her status.
“I don’t have any regrets about this. If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t be the human that I am right now. I would be doing something that I would not like. I would never be involved in NGOs.
"For sure I would be more ignorant than I am. It changed my life, but in a better way. I have not been a victim of this.”
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