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Europe

Austria's FPÖ cozies up to extreme right

Right-wing 'Defenders of Europe' will meet in Linz this weekend. Representatives of the German right will be there - and the secretary general of the FPÖ will, too. That could hurt presidential candidate Norbert Hofer.

Norbert Hofer has earned the nickname "the friendly face of the FPÖ" (Freedom Party of Austria). He manages to keep a smile even when things get heated on TV talk shows. His image is important, for Hofer hopes to become Austria's next president in December. He and his party, which also wants to provide Austria's next chancellor, present themselves as statesmanlike and avoid appearing overly close to the country's extreme right. Hofer has even gone to court to maintain that image. This summer he sued a member of the SPÖ (Socialist Party of Austria) for calling him a "Nazi."

But now, a controversial appearance has again sparked discussions about the FPÖ's relationship with the extreme right. FPÖ Secretary General Herbert Kickl will address a congress in Linz on Saturday of right-wing student fraternities (Burschenschaften), new rightists and anti-Semites calling themselves the "Defenders of Europe."

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Inside Europe: The saga goes on in Austria

The meeting is to be a self-proclaimed "showcase of patriotic, identity shaping, conservative work." The pompous meeting place, the baroque Redoutensäle, was rented by the Arminia Czernowitz fraternity. "Media partners," are exclusively right-wing blogs and magazines - all other journalists have been denied accreditation.

"The fact that the press has been completely shut out suggests that what will be happening there is not politically irrelevant," Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher on right-wing extremism at the University of Vienna, told DW.

Prominent Austrians have protested against the meeting, among them, writer Elfriede Jelinek, who penned an open letter to the state of Upper Austria, demanding that it cancel the rental contract for the halls - to no avail. Opponents of the right-wing movements in attendance have announced a demonstration to take place on Saturday.

Österreich Treffen Patriotischer Frühling in Wien (Getty Images/AFP/H. Neubauer)

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From right-wing to extreme right-wing

Bernhard Weidinger sees the congress as an important networking opportunity for German-speaking right-wing groups. The German journalist Jürgen Elsässer, editor-in-chief of "Compact" magazine and most recently a speaker at the second-year anniversary of the anti-immigrant "Pegida" movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), will be among the featured speakers.

"The spectrum ranges from right-wing conservatives, to right-wing extremists with ties to neo-Nazism," says Weidinger. Above all, right-wing media outlets will be present. "That particular scene sees itself as the movement's intellectual avant-garde." He considers several participants to be anti-Semitic, even if that is not the common consensus of the movement. "I would say the mainstream includes groups like the 'Blauen Narzisse,' the 'Sezession' and the so-called 'Identitarians.'"

All of these groups are unified in the fight against the supposed "Islamization" of Europe. The "Identitarian Movement" in particular, has made a name for itself of late: In April, members stormed a play put on by refugees in Vienna, and this August, in Berlin, they unfurled a huge banner on the Brandenburg Gate.

Österreich Präsidenten-Wahl 2016 Alexander Van der Bellen (picture alliance/ZUMA Press/Qian Yi)

Presidential hopeful van der Bellen could profit from the FPÖ brushing shoulders with Europe's extreme right

A stroke of good luck for van der Bellen

As far as content, says Weidinger, there is not much difference between the Identitarians and the FPÖ. The Identitarians are demanding an "end to mass immigration," something that the FPÖ is also calling for - albeit with subtler slogans and without such aggressive stunts. One person, more than any, stands for this softer approach: Herbert Kickl, who is responsible for the party's slogans. Thus, observers are all the more surprised that he, of all people, will be attending the congress in Linz.

"Normally, Herbert Kickl weighs his and Norbert Hofer's strategic positions extremely carefully," says publisher and DW political advisor Thomas Hofer. "This, so close to Austria's presidential election, could be a move that hurts his candidate."

Kickl can of course emphasize that he does not share the opinion of all of those participating in the Linz congress. But that won't count for much in the election, says Hofer: "The impression that the appearance suggests will be more important." By attending, he will make it easy for his opponent, Green Party presidential candidate Alexander van der Bellen, to mobilize voters scared that the country may veer to the right. "It is just another opportunity for him to say that Norbert Hofer is a wolf in sheep's clothing."    

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